All sides of Ramones shown in new film
When four misfits from Forest Hills, New York, formed a rock 'n' roll band in the early 1970s and adopted the single surname Ramone, it was a defiant symbol of solidarity.
It was also a symbol of profound family-style dysfunction, a new documentary film about the fabled punk rock group the Ramones reveals.
"The Ramones' dysfunction was their genius, but it limited their careers," said Jim Fields, who made the film with Michael Gramaglia. "I think they were born miserable and they just found each other."
Working in the same do-it-yourself spirit as their subjects, the first-time film makers spent the good part of a decade documenting the saga of the Ramones.
The result, Magnolia Pictures' "End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones," now in limited release in the United States, also serves as a valedictory to Johnny Ramone (born John Cummings), who died on September 15 of prostate cancer. He was the third member of the original band to die within the past three years. Candid interviews with the notoriously close-mouthed guitarist are a key part of the film.
"We were just doing it on the fly and hoping for the best," said Fields, likening the experience to building a "bridge over the River Kwai with toothpicks."
The film, which combines group portrait and pop-culture history, includes rare footage from the Ramones' legendary early shows at New York's CBGB, the Bowery dive that became the centre of the punk and New Wave universe. But the film's most astounding revelation is that for 17 of the band's 22 years, two of its founding members didn't speak to each other.
'They weren't beautiful'
Like all avid fans of the band, the producer-directors of "End of the Century" were drawn to the Ramones' "anti-rock star" aura. "They weren't beautiful, they were kind of awkward, and they were a little bit bizarre. And that was perfect for us," Gramaglia said.
In the age of disco fever and solo-laden rock, the Queens quartet's unfashionable din of two-minute songs with monosyllabic lyrics played as fast as possible was not so much a breath of fresh air as a gale-force storm front.
But for all the impact of songs like "Blitzkrieg Bop" and "I Wanna Be Sedated," the Ramones never scored a top 40 hit. They watched from the sidelines as fellow CBGB stars Blondie and Talking Heads surpassed them commercially, while the Sex Pistols and the Clash claimed the punk crown.
Gramaglia befriended the band when he worked for a financial management firm where they were clients. When he and Fields began working on their film in 1998, two years after the band called it quits, they found themselves navigating troubled waters.
The heart of the matter was a long-standing rift between staunch Republican Johnny and lead singer and left-wing activist Joey (Jeffrey Hyman). But it wasn't politics that divided them. It was a girl.
Early in the band's career, Joey's girlfriend Linda left him for Johnny, an event the singer memorialised in the song "The KKK Took My Baby Away." Linda and Johnny married and were together until his death. Joey and Johnny continued to work together, sharing the cramped quarters of a rental van on the road, but they never again spoke to each other, not even when Joey was on his deathbed.
The guitarist, who died at home, surrounded by friends, says in the film, "If I didn't like someone, I wouldn't want him calling me up when I was dying."
The conflict was a tightly guarded aspect of the band; close friends of Johnny have come up to the film makers after screenings to express their surprise. "End of the Century" places the scenario in the context of the Ramones' strange but productive chemistry.
"Everything personal that we brought up is only because it was in their music," Gramaglia said. "That's why it was interesting to us."
The film illustrates that there was no shortage of intra-band struggles to fuel creativity. There was Joey's obsessive-compulsive disorder, which interviewees spoke freely about only after he succumbed to lymphatic cancer in 2001. There was DeeDee's heroin addiction, which took the life of the outspoken bassist (Douglas Colvin) in 2002, only weeks after the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Amid the strong personalities, original drummer Tommy (Tom Erdelyi), now the only surviving member of the original foursome, found more satisfaction behind the control board in the studio.
His replacement, Marky Ramone (Marc Bee), was kicked out of the band because of his drinking, only to return a few drummers later. Serving as authority figure for the ragtag faux family was Johnny, de facto business manager and taskmaster.
Fields and Gramaglia noted that, as with most families where eccentricity reigns, each of the Ramones was convinced that he was the normal one and the only real Ramone.
*story and image taken from CNN.com