One of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time was, in its time, one of the least appreciated. Throughout their 22-year career, the Ramones never gained popular support; they never had a hit single (even with the instantly recognizable “I Wanna Be Sedated”), never made an album that sold well, and were only partially credited for the revolution in music they created. Today, after the band’s dissolution and the deaths of founding members Joey and Dee Dee, pretty ‘punk’ starlets like Avril and Ashlee sport Ramones regalia and sweatshirts emblazoned with the band’s logo can be purchased in Hot Topics in shopping malls across America. With the new mainstream adoption of the Ramones as cool, it would be easy to forget who they really were. In the new documentary “End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones” (Magnolia Pictures), the first punk rock band in the world is paid proper and honest tribute.
From their days growing up in Queens, Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny and Tommy never really liked each other, bonding not through friendship but through a common love of bands like the Stooges and the MC5. It was their disgust with the self-absorption and boredom that infused rock and roll in the mid-1970s that inspired the formation of the Ramones. While overblown, bare-chested-beauty rock acts like Led Zeppelin sold out in record stores and arenas and disco took over the public’s music consciousness, the Ramones’ trail of glory was blazed in tiny clubs that literally “smelled of cat shit,” tearing through faster-than-light two-minute songs whose hysterically funny lyrical content alternated between sweet, nonsensical and nihilistic. Their albums and frenetic live performances gave birth to the terrible child that became known as punk rock, informing new bands like the Clash and the Sex Pistols and changing rock and roll from the bottom up.
The documentary, co-directed by Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields, forges through intimate interviews with each individual band member and live performance footage a narrative as raw and unpolished as the band’s music itself. From watching the comical amateurishness of three inexperienced and otherwise untalented players fighting with each other over which song to do next to the group’s overall frustration with its lack of conventional success and the guerrilla warfare-like relations between band members, every point of the Ramones’ life as a band is captured in stark light. In memorium of Johnny Ramone, 1948-2004: he died in his sleep yesterday afternoon (Sept. 15) after a 5-year battle with prostate cancer.
But “End of the Century” also acts as a sort of solvent. The film strips away all that the Ramones have become, cutting through the myth of coolness established genuinely by critics and rock historians and, more recently, for profit’s sake by clothing companies and corporate music vixens. The film exposes the true seed: four geeks from Queens who, with a wink-and-a-grin sense of humor and unpretentious 1-2-3-4 songs, saved rock and roll. In one of the film’s last moments, Dee Dee gleefully holds up a Ramones T-shirt and says “Look what I bought!” Both to the world and to the band itself, the fact that the Ramones became legends may be the greatest joke of all.
“End of the Century” opens exclusively at Landmark E Street Cinema on Sept. 17, Friday.