A great American tragedy about a great American band.
To categorize End of the Century as a rockumentary would not do the film justice as such a mislabel conjures visions of tepid Behind the Music episodes. This cinematic project is far greater than clichéd accounts of musical excess as it tells the equally comedic and tragic tale of one of history’s most groundbreaking and influential bands. The Ramones’ saga is compelling in that it involves divergent characters who came together and stayed together despite themselves, while single handedly pioneering an entire musical genre. Allowing these faces and voices to tell their own story gives fans the definitive account of the band’s ups, downs and in-betweens.
Through extensive interviews and archival concert footage, the story of the Ramones is chronicled with amazing clarity and candor. From the band’s humble beginnings in Forest Hills, New York to knocking around Manhattan’s seedy Lower East Side to introducing legions of disenfranchised London youth to the punk aesthetic, the Ramones are portrayed as a hard-charging multi-headed creature: fronted by Joey, commanded by Johnny, originally directed by Tommy and fueled creatively by Dee Dee. All the main participants are heard from, offering a multitude of opinions and anecdotes. Even secondary players add greatly to the historical blueprint: Chris Stein, Debbie Harry and Legs McNeil paint a vivid picture of the mid 1970s NYC scene; Joe Strummer beautifully articulates the Ramones’ importance to the English wave of punk rebellion; Danny Fields elaborates on the nuances and insanities of the music industry; Ritchie Ramone and Clem Burke describe their mixed experiences behind the drum kit; assorted musicians from Kirk Hammet to John Frusciante discuss the Ramones’ impact on their own respective developments as musicians.
One of the most puzzling revelations in the film is the perpetual discord that existed between band mates; at any given time everyone was fighting with someone else about a litany of issues, including Johnny’s dominance, Joey’s compulsiveness, Marky’s drinking or Dee Dee’s drug use and eccentricities. Such battles would have shattered lesser bands in a matter of days, but somehow, someway the Ramones stayed the course (perhaps simply in the name of art) for over 20 years. Despite numerous instances where band members left and were replaced, the Ramones entity soldiered forth. Johnny’s thoughts on standard operating procedure are most telling; he viewed the band as a machine in need of constant fine tuning, with little margin for error. He was a demanding task master, but also the glue that kept things together. It is particularly sobering to hear his comments about the band’s elusive commercial success, specifically the moment he realized it would never be a viable record selling enterprise. The admission is painful to witness from such a driven and committed individual, simply because the Ramones deserved better.
The lengthy rift between Johnny and Joey is elaborated on, the scope of which is startling. Their disdain for each other became so great that virtually all lines of communication broke down, leaving the two sharing only stage and studio time. Perhaps the most defining comment of the film is uttered by Marky as he discusses retaking the drum stool after Ritchie’s departure. Referring to the band’s ongoing internal strife, he states, “The tension between Johnny and Joey was still there and I thought ‘Jesus Christ, how long you gonna hold onto this shit?’, you know what I mean?” It is the height of dysfunctional behavior within an exceedingly dysfunctional band.
The DVD includes a generous portion of bonus material consisting primarily of extended interview footage, in addition to an impromptu drum lesson with Marky and a songwriting flashback with Tommy. Not a second of screen time is wasted as every word contributes to further understanding the convoluted world of the Ramones.
As brilliant as End of the Century is in offering a comprehensive story, the profoundly tragic elements are what drive the film: The Ramones were the band that should have struck it rich but didn’t; Johnny, Joey and Dee Dee should have lived longer to share their art with the masses but were whisked away far too soon. Viewers are left cheering and crying for their leather clad heroes, while remembering the group’s stellar legacy. Despite the underlying sadness associated with all that band members (as well as fans) lost, the film pays a glowing tribute to what once was.
And for over 20 years, the Ramones were one of the greatest bands ever to take the stage.