of the Century: The Story of the Ramones
It is a rather unnerving honour for any documentary to hold, but the most compelling aspect of End of the Century: The Story of The Ramones is how many of its principal subjects are now dead.
Directors Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields began shooting and gathering material on this great punk band in 1998; before they were finished, both Joey and Dee Dee were gone, and Johnny followed them last September. They also managed to get the final interview with Clash legend Joe Strummer.
"It's better to burn out than to fade away". Neil Young's tribute to the punk ethos comes to mind often while watching this compelling documentary. Although The Ramones made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, their status as fiery outsiders determined their twenty years of working history on the road and in the studio.
Although they often dreamed of breaking through to the mainstream success enjoyed by some of their imitators, The Ramones remained "almost famous". But never once in that time did they significantly alter their energetic, speedy, relentlessly direct style.
For those filmgoers who may have missed out on this essential episode of music history, the various Ramones are not siblings. The adopted collective surname accompanied other marks of uniformity: always the same leather jackets and jeans, always the same thrashing tempo, and always the same approach to live performance – high intensity playing and singing with scarcely a break between numbers and a shouted count-in to every new onslaught.
Such Ramones classics as "Sheena is a Punk Rocker", "Rock'n'Roll High School" and "The KKK Took My Baby Away", lovingly documented here in performance clips, are as strange and wondrous to hear today as they were when they were first composed. Early audience members from the mid 1970s CGBG days, such as Debbie Harry and Chris Stein of Blondie, testify to that reaction eternally elicited by The Ramones: are they for real? Are they putting us on with these songs that sound like viciously camp exaggerations of innocent 1950s ditties?
But no, The Ramones seriously believed in what they purveyed – and this documentary establishes beyond doubt their unquenchable levels of professionalism, commitment and drive. It will even have you pondering the autobiographical resonances of the songs' ingeniously nutty lyrics.
The Ramones were a paradoxically functional collection of highly dysfunctional personalities. Johnny was a right-wing control freak; Joey struggled to master his obsessive-compulsive disorder; and Dee Dee was a wild and crazy drug addict. They had their fun along the way, but it was the notion of a career, well beyond the ephemeral thrills, that kept them going as a unit. No matter the issues – coolly, hypnotically detailed by Gramaglia and Fields – that led to tensions and non-communication off stage, on stage The Ramones almost always played like a crack commando unit.
This is a simpler music documentary than Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004), but in every respect superior. It does not strain either for smarty-pants irony or end-of-an-era pathos. The most bizarre incidents – like Dee Dee's ill-fated excursion into rap – are treated in a matter-of-fact way, leaving viewers free to draw their own conclusions.
While clearly a homage paid by devoted fans, End of the Century is never a sentimental whitewash. And it conveys more about the difficulties of collaborative work and creation than any televised reality-show.
© Adrian Martin January 2005