And yet, if you’re going to get invested in a subculture, you ought to know where it came from. The 2003 documentary End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones, directed by Jim Fields and Michael Gramaglia, serves as a good Punk Rock 101 for people who don’t know much of the band’s lore, and of course, a fun dose of nostalgia for people who do.
The film begins with the 2001 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony honoring the Ramones, and then retraces the band’s origin story from gritty 1970s New York bars to the explosion of punk culture. The storyline stays fairly coherent, though it’s told without a narrator, and entirely with archival footage and interviews with the band members, managers, family and friends.
Dee Dee Ramone, the longtime bassist, and Johnny Ramone, the tireless guitarist, stand out as the most compelling subjects. Joey Ramone had passed away from cancer before most of the interviews were shot, but he still makes a few appearances, peering out from behind his glasses and bangs. Other big players show up, too, like Joe Strummer, the New York Dolls, Lars Frederiksen of Rancid, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Metallica.
The Ramones wrote great songs and helped launch a subculture, and they knew it. “We were the stars,” Dee Dee declares about their early shows at CBGBs. They went on to major-label record deals and toured the world playing huge shows, always clinging to their original aesthetic of tight jeans, leather jackets and ridiculous hair. “They always looked great, never changed,” says Rob Zombie, of all people. “You’d come and see the Ramones and go, what year is it anyway?”
End of the Century subtly excels in delivering even-handed portrayals of its subjects’ abrasive personalities. A career in music doesn’t necessarily prep anybody for the Emotional Maturity Olympics, as we see all too clearly. Dee Dee, despite being a goofy junkie, provides the most coherent, candid views of his bandmates’ personalities. Johnny comes off as a cold drill sergeant, devoted to his conservative politics. Toward the end of the film, after Joey’s death, Johnny has trouble even grasping that he was sad about Joey dying. “I cared ... and that bothered me,” he says. He brushes it off, deciding he only cared because Joey was a Ramone, and Johnny would go to bat for anyone who was part of the Ramones. It’s Johnny’s dedication to the band that ultimately redeems him; he was a jerk, but as Dee Dee says, he still sacrificed and worked hard to keep the band together.
I understand that a film has to find narrative tension somehow, which can be a little tough when recounting decades of history. End of the Century tries to draw sympathy for this li’l ole rock band from Queens, and I’m not buying it. Every Ramone complains that they never hit the commercial success they were looking for, saying none of their albums sold as well as they wanted. That might be true, and yet, they were still the damn Ramones. Most of the members died pretty young, but they still lived long enough to see what their legacy would be like. Their images are iconic and “Blitzkrieg Bop” is blasted at sports stadiums. An entire subgenre of punk is called Ramonescore. None of this could be enough, though: Johnny and Dee Dee in particular come off as pissed and ungrateful. (Come to think of it, that’s rather punx of them.)
End of the Century also plays up the squabbles between the band members. They should have fizzled out instantly, what with the drug use, the drinking, the fights over women. And yet, the band was a veritable institution, lasting for 22 years, consistently touring and putting out mostly good records. If a member left, a new substitute Ramone was inducted pronto. At the core, Johnny and Joey seemed to hate each other, but they were dedicated to what they’d created. As a friend observes at one point, “Joey had money, he could’ve left. But he needed the fix.” The fix, that is, of getting up on stage, of being adored, of turning from mega-dork into rock star.
I often wonder how the Ramones and their artistic progeny, like Teenage Bottlerocket and Mean Jeans, don’t get bored with the same two-minute, three-chord songs, year in and year out. As End of the Century reminds us, the Ramones’ music isn’t about complexity. It’s about a distillation of anger and joy and longing into a wall of noise that manages to be almost universally identifiable. And in that way, the Ramones are timeless.
End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones screens as part ofthe Big Sky Film Series at the Top Hat Mon., Nov. 25, at 7:30 PM. Free.