End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones
THE MOVIE: Johnny Ramone was a genius. The stiff-lipped Ramones guitarist was always the most stone-faced Sphinx of the ragtag no-BS rock ’n’ roll band that came storming out of Queens, N.Y., in the early 1970s, but directors Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields’s End of the Century reveals the working brain behind that flat-lipped grimace and cold stare. Johnny was the architect of the band’s image and instinctive businessman managing the band’s tours, ensuring profit when it couldn’t make a hit record during its 1976-’80 trailblazing output. Johnny was the stern general organizing the band as shop, a blue-collar guy from a working-class neighborhood. He was the avowed Republican to vocalist Joey Ramone’s leftist Jewish intellectual, bassist Dee Dee’s permanent teenager, and original drummer Tommy’s levelheaded voice of reason. Johnny was the guy who stole poet Joey’s girlfriend, Linda (and married her, his partner until his 2004 death), and the band’s self-appointed disciplinarian and taskmaster, a bit of a prick.
What makes Century indispensable are these peeks behind the Ramones’ wall of sound and enigma. Bits and pieces of Century’s soap opera about the Ramones’ formation and career have appeared in print—particularly Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me: The Oral History of Punk—but this bittersweet rock doc pumps life into those anecdotes with archival footage from early shows at CBGB and England’s Roundhouse, where every talking-head future punk (the Clash’s Joe Strummer, the Damned’s Captain Sensible, Sex Pistols’ Glenn Matlock) romanticizes that everybody who attended started a band. Underscoring all the affection—from Ramones peers such as Blondie’s Chris Stein and Deborah Harry and art director Arturo Vega to later fans such as omnipresent hipster voice Thurston Moore—is a dissection of a band that stayed together because that was the job. The Ramones are what they did, through Tommy’s departure, replacement drummer Marky’s rehab, and even Dee Dee’s departure and brief rap career, on its way to a 2002 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
THE DISC: Thankfully demurring from the usual director’s commentary, Century’s extras are just more of the doc’s engaging raw materials: one-on-one interviews with the band and peers that populate the movie. Some are priceless for the frankness from which the band never wavered: the clip of Marky describing and then demonstrating the Ramones’ drum technique is a hoot, as is Stein and Harry’s zoned-out conversation, during which Stein recalls yet another junky Dee Dee story when the bassist was staying with Johnny Thunders in Paris. Watching these vignettes imparts a slight spine-chill, for many of these personalities—Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny, and Strummer—passed away shortly after filming, casting a mortal shadow over a band that turned youth’s hopeful spite into a cultural force.