Monday, 18 April 2005

End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones (2003) - ickleReview (cinema)

Henry Rollins, member of Black Flag and now a stand-up comedian and leader of the Rollins Band, often talks about the Ramones during his gigs. He has this story he tells of when he went to see the Ramones when he was a kid in Virginia or someplace, how raw and intense the experience was. How Joey Ramone came on stage, said, "We're the Ramones. 1, 2, 3, 4," and they were straight into the first song. How they pounded the heck out of you and played song after song after song with hardly a breath in between, leaving you exhausted by the end of the set. Awesome. Hardcore. Intense. Favourite words of Rollins.

This rockumentary never really captures what the Ramones are like live (there is very little decent live footage and often the studio recordings have to be dubbed over the top because the acoustics were so bad), but it does show you who the Ramones were. I only went because Rollins was so enthusiastic about them. I've never knowingly listened to any of their albums. They have very much a cult following, especially from other bands, who often say the Ramones were the reason they wanted to be in a band.

The first part of the film is a little confusing as there are a lot of old rockers' talking heads, often introduced by name only once. It traces the band's roots back to Queens, New York, where they used to hang out together - a bunch of freaks who didn't really fit in and didn't have a great time at school. How they formed a band and started to play gigs at a club called CBGB's, where Television and Blondie used to play. This was at a time when New York was being drained by the "white flight". One thinks of the smackhead era depicted in The Panic in Needle Park: the Bowery was a shithole. The Ramones, I guess, are partly the reason why now it's such a trendy, young place to hangout, where the indie scene is huge and why bands like the Strokes have made it big in this generation.

Slowly, watching the film, you learn that Johnny Ramone was the leader who used to take charge and boss people around. He insisted they wear their "uniforms": jeans and black leather jackets. He got pissed off when Dee Dee hung out with Connie, a crackwhore, and got into fights with her. He would bully Joey, who was an obsessive compulsive and would delay them with all his rituals and superstitions when they were on the road. He would probably be the reason why drummer Tommy eventually left the band when he got so exhausted by the touring schedule.

Later, we find out that Johnny stole Joey's girlfriend and married her - a grudge which they kept for over 18 years - but strangely, they never left the band (perhaps because they had nowhere else to go, nothing else to do), whereas Tommy and Dee Dee did.

Johnny is actually really funny with his pessimistic, conservative arrogance and his refusal to be civil to anyone. Dee Dee is quite charming as the dumbfuck smackhead. You can see why Johnny would never let him do interviews. Joey eventually came out of his shell when all the attention he was getting as the lead singer went to his head and made him speak out, made him want to influence where the band was going.

Directors Jim Fields and Michael Gramaglia do a great job of piecing together all the material into a chronological narrative, up to the band's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, and the deaths of Joey from cancer in 2001 and Dee Dee from an overdose in 2002. You really get the sense of how much they influenced the British punk rock scene, selling many more albums in the UK than they ever managed in the US, where they were never accepted by the mainstream music industry and never allowed radio airtime, for fear they would puke up everywhere and cause havoc. But then, bands like this are never in spirit going to be part of the mainstream; their whole appeal is that they were different from everything else out there at the time, 1974, when 7-minute solos where the prog-rock standard; the Ramones, who were never good musicians, showed that anyone, even the talentless, could do it (their legacy is that many of those others did: that's why we have the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Strokes and, my current personal favourite, Mando Diao).

Nugget: the best moments are about Dee Dee and Johnny, especially Dee Dee's hilarious attempt at becoming a hip-hop star, which you just gotta see. It's all quite conventional in how it's put together, but it's entertaining and informative viewing nevertheless.

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