If there’s a lesson to be learned from End of the Century, a new documentary about punk rock forefathers the Ramones, it’s that sometimes it sucks to be a rock star.
The Ramones, in distilling rock and roll in the early ‘70s with speeding, sloppy guitars, simplistic lyrics and an intensity matched by few bands before or since, deserve much of the credit for the creation of punk rock. Of course, deserving and receiving are very different things. The Ramones didn’t sell many records until 20 years after their formation, and most of the credit for inaugurating punk rock went to Ramones-inspired bands in Britain such as the Sex Pistols. However, as the film makes explicitly clear, whatever the Ramones’ addictions, hatred or politics offstage, when they played together, it was a blitzkrieg of sound and fury.
End of the Century traces the four founding band members, Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee and Tommy, from their days as glue-sniffing teenage outcasts, to their eventual decision to buy cheap guitars and start a band and to the band’s break-up in 1996. It’s the relationships between the four that are the crux of the film. As the band aged, it burned through three drummers and two bass players, who quit for reasons ranging from drug addiction to exhaustion. Johnny, the disciplined, conservative lead guitarist, and Joey, the more free-spirited and liberal lead singer, spent the first five years of the group’s existence arguing over the creative direction of the band and the next 15 refusing to speak to each other after Joey’s girlfriend left him for Johnny-even as Joey lay dying in 2001. Johnny himself passed away last Wednesday, the day the film opened in the district.
The filmmakers behind the project, Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields, met in high school, both sharing a love of rock music, especially the Ramones. By the early ‘90s they were working in the film industry but neither had played a major role in creating a feature film.
“Somehow this band was so absurd and unusual,” Gramaglia said to the Voice, explaining his desire to document the history of the Ramones. “How did they get a contract? Would a band like this ever get a contact today? We sort of thought, maybe not. A band like that might never get signed again.”
Gramaglia and Fields took a learn-as-you-go approach that the Ramones themselves might appreciate. Though the two had worked on the technical side of films before, they had never directed or produced. At first they didn’t realize the need to license the music and archival film footage featured in their movie, or even obtain written permission to show interviews, Gramaglia said. In spite of their directorial inexperience, the duo has created a film that is a detailed, often humorous and entirely insightful portrait of the tortured dynamics of the band.
The cinematography in the documentary is typical of the documentary genre. Interviews are cut with footage from concerts and the occasional still photograph. The editing is smooth, but the rough textures of the older concert films and poor lighting in many of the interviews give the film a homemade feel, fitting for the subject, though it may test one’s tolerance with constant changes in visual tone. There are a few bad choices as well: the use of intentionally blurred modern shots of brick buildings to help characterize the Ramones’ youth in Queens is distracting.
The real draw here is the recovered archival footage of the band, including some early Ramones performances at the now infamous New York club C.B.G.B. The band argues violently over which song to play, throws down their instruments in frustration and stalks off the stage before returning five minutes later to shout “1-2-3-4” into another set-all in front of an audience of no more than 10.
Equally fascinating are the interviews with band members, especially those with Dee Dee Ramone, both in the ‘70s and before his death from a heroin overdose in 2002. Dee Dee, who began using heroin in the ‘70s, ranges from a drug-addled stereotype, trying in one scene to explain how the new amplifiers worked after a show, to an astonishingly accurate observer of the emotional interplay between band members.
End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones is playing at the E St. Theatre at 555 11th St. N.W. (entrance on E St. between 10th and 11th St.)-call (202) 452-7672 for showtimes.