The great irony of End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones is how it takes a band that prided itself on unity -- the same last name for everyone, the uniform-like ensemble of tattered denim jeans and black leather jackets -- and showed how very individual and singular each member actually was. The documentary, directed by Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields, was made during what became an amazingly sped-up and tragic ending of one of punk rock's most important bands. Lead singer Joey Ramone died in 2001 of lymphatic cancer at the age of 49, a year before the band was inducted by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Bassist Dee Dee Ramone died of a heroin overdose two months after the induction. The final nail came after the completion of the film, when guitarist Johnny Ramone lost a five-year battle to cancer in September, at age 55.
The New Orleans Film Festival (NOFF) continues an impressive streak of programming one-off screenings of films that wouldn't normally make it to New Orleans with a Tuesday showing at the Prytania Theatre. The screening comes after successive weekly presentations of the Oscar-nominated Vera Drake. Last December, the NOFF showed the Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster, and last spring the Andy Goldsworthy documentary Rivers and Tides enjoyed an unprecedented four encore screenings at the Prytania.
That all of these movies have been critical smashes are not coincidental in the success of the screenings, yet none of them were box-office wonders. That's what makes the screening of End of the Century a perfect selection; no other band in rock history has received so much credit for influencing popular music without enjoying the commercial success as the Ramones. Joey Ramone's vocals rode herd over a three-chord guitar attack fueled by the disciplined Johnny Ramone, whose approach ran almost completely against the mid-1970s grain of prog-rock noodling excess. He took the sound of predecessors like the Stooges, Television and New York Dolls, and stripped it down and sped it up.
Johnny Ramone also becomes the most compelling figure in End of the Century, mainly for his consistency of playing and character. His sense of discipline fueled both the band's image -- he devised the band's look and onstage demeanor, one where the members always faced the audience as if honoring a covenant with them -- and his conservative politcs. And he never wavers, even regarding his feud with Joey over everything from the artistic direction of the band to a girlfriend. Johnny supposedly stole Joey's girlfriend, which inspired the song "The KKK Stole My Baby Away." When it was mentioned that Johnny refused to visit Joey on his deathbed, Johnny shrugs and pointed to the hypocrisy of such a visit.
That's the mark of one tough dude, and the toughness of each band member is illustrated in the early years when they were essentially four misfits growing up in the Forest Hills section of Queens, the type of neighborhood that no one would admit to hailing from. Joey was a sickly child who suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder. When you get a good look at him from under his bacon-strip mane of black hair, you see a retiring, frog-faced geek who probably couldn't fit in anywhere else in society.
"Joey had to become a rock star," posits rock critic Legs McNeil. "Because he stuck out anyway. So he had to do something about this. Instead of getting shit on by people I don't think he had a choice."
Joey was also a hopeless romantic and a confessed lover of pop music -- at one point he confesses a love of the Bay City Rollers -- and here you can see where the Ramones probably got some of the melodic flow that permeated everything from "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" to "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker." Tommy Ramone, the drummer, is given his proper credit as the band's producer in the early years before growing weary of the touring. He would leave and later return.
Then there was the wild child, Dee Dee, a bassist who moonlighted in the early days as a hustler working the street corners of the Lower East Side to fund his heroin addiction, which inspired the song "53rd and 3rd." Together, Dee and Joey used their playfully dark sense of humor to channel their alienation into such songs as "Beat on the Brat" and "I Wanna Be Sedated," all clicked off in concert with Dee Dee's "1,2,3,4!"and with nary a break.
Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields do the unthinkable: make a longish documentary about a band that prided itself in furious two-minute assaults, and make the story move at a brisk pace while avoiding hero worship and rock-doc cliche. They tap into the key to the Ramones' history: what they meant may have been bigger than what they made. The Ramones influenced or helped start countless punk bands in both the U.S. and Great Britain, not the least of which was the Clash, which initially co-opted the Ramones' sound before incorporating reggae and other influences into their own unique style. The Clash's Joe Strummer, who also recently died, provides the most telling comment on the band: "It was like a white heat because of the constant barrage of tunes. You couldn't put a cigarette paper between one tune ending and the next beginning. You couldn't get any tighter if you'd been in New Orleans all your life."
- The Ramones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, but lost three of its key members within three years of the induction ceremony.