Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

End of the Century (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on March 15, 2005

Directed by Jim Fields and Michael Gramaglia/starring the Ramones/Rhino Home Video

A documentary about the influential punk rock band The Ramones.

All right, my very first screener copy! I have arrived! And what an awesome movie to get for my screener debut. This is a film that I would gladly have paid to see, so my recommendation is completely sincere. If I really didn’t like it, believe me, I’d tell you.

I think it’s important to note that this review is coming from a longtime Ramones fan. I can’t claim to have been a fan of the band during their late-‘70’s heyday, because punk rock didn’t really reach us where I live until maybe the mid-‘80’s. Me and my pre-teen suburban mallrat friends worshipped the likes of KISS, Van Halen and AC/DC at the time, and we really didn’t know from punk rock in the outskirts of nowhere. It seems strange now, but this was before MTV and other music video channels, Internet radio, satellite radio, digital cable music channels, and even “alternative rock radio” for the most part. Everything wasn’t easily accessed the way it is now. What was going on in New York and London might as well have been happening on Neptune.

It wasn’t until 1985, when I happened to see the band’s video for “Something to Believe In” on MTV (yes kids, once upon a time MTV actually played videos, and they even played the Ramones, once or twice) that I got turned on to them. I was in high school at the time, and was living on a steady diet of Def Leppard, Ratt and Motley Crue, so you can imagine how unhappy I was. Nothing against those bands, but I wasn’t exactly living the party-hearty “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll” lifestyle. I liked the music, but I couldn’t really relate to it. So imagine my surprise when I saw these four grungy guys in black T-shirts and black leather jackets. If you remember the video, it’s the one that spoofs the “charity” musical events of the time with an “all-star” lineup of celebrities asking the viewer to pledge their support to Ramones Aid (the band themselves were the worthy cause!). I had only vaguely heard of the Ramones, I had no idea who most of the people in the video were, and I didn’t even really comprehend the joke at first. But the song was so insanely catchy, the video so sloppily goofy and the lyrics so plain-spoken and down to earth, that it made me insanely curious: who the hell were these freaky guys??? And why were they doing everything wrong, yet it seemed so…right?

Well, it wasn’t until several years later, when my tastes in rock music began to diversify a bit, that I actually bought a Ramones album (the compilation Ramones Mania, a great place to start). I couldn’t let my Whitesnake-lovin’ high school buddies know that I was listening to something…different, right? But at that moment, I was completely hooked. And when I finally got to see them live (on their very last tour, Lollapalooza ’96), it was an incredible experience. They played about 20 songs in around 25 minutes. It was exhilarating. Even though the band broke up not long after, they’ve held a special place in my heart ever since. I may have been late to the party, but the devotion they inspired in their legions of fans is not foreign to me. And yes, one of their songs inspired the name of the main-page column on my site. Their legacy still lives on, where you least expect it.

End of the Century is pretty much a straightforward documentary about the band’s career, their music and their influence. It hits all the Behind the Music notes you’d expect from a traditional music doc: the band’s origins, early club performances (complete with rare footage), managers, record labels, power struggles and member flameouts. Die-hard fans already know a lot of the information revealed here, from the band’s frustrating lack of mainstream acceptance to their eventual deification as “the godfathers of punk”. There are also the requisite testimonials from contemporaries like The Clash’s Joe Strummer and Blondie’s Deborah Harry and Chris Stein, as well as the fans that were inspired by them to start their own bands, ranging from Eddie Vedder to Rob Zombie to Metallica’s Kirk Hammett.

What makes End of the Century such a fascinating, essential document is the interview footage from the band members themselves. With 3 out of 4 of the original members now deceased, hearing the story of the Ramones from their own mouths is an experience well worth having. In the light of the band’s dogged, never-say-die determinism having been punctured by such deflating tragedy in recent years, it’s almost uplifting in a strange way to see these icons rejuvenated on film. The movie winds up being more than just a tribute to an influential band’s past glories – for 110 minutes, the Ramones are back, as loud, defiant and powerful as ever.

It’s interesting to note the differences between the various members’ points of view on well-known stories, such as their misadventures with legendary producer Phil Spector and the long-running rift caused by Johnny stealing Joey’s girlfriend. But what’s even more worthwhile is the way the movie debunks various long-held myths about the band as well. For years, music critics looked at the Ramones’ music as an intentional rebuke to the pretentiousness of the “progressive rock” bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer that were popular in the ‘70’s. Where those groups were artistically inclined to the point of being pompous and overblown (some would say unlistenable), the Ramones were purposely loud, sloppy, and simplistic. Critics have credited them with taking rock music “back to its roots” of three-chord melodies and basic, unadorned songs about love and ordinary life. But as the movie shows, the band was simply doing what they knew how to do. They played three chords because they only knew three chords. They wrote songs about what they liked and cared about. Their brilliance came from the fact that they didn’t really know any better. They simply didn’t know how to do things any other way. And somehow, by some miracle, they made it work for them.

What also separates their story from most typical music docs is that there really wasn’t a “rise and fall” arc. Since they were never really fully accepted by the mainstream music industry, their cult success came through sheer persistence. Even when they knew they would never “make it” commercially, they just kept plugging away, for themselves and for the fans. That’s ultimately what inspired so many of their fans to start bands of their own – the idea that ordinary people could start a band and carve out a long career based on loyalty and integrity. They were one of the first bands who didn’t thrive because they had “hits” or because they sold out stadiums – they thrived because they believed in what they were doing, and did it well. If four self-proclaimed “freaks” from the streets of New York City could do it, so could anyone else.

It’s really a pretty incredible story, and End of the Century does a remarkably good job in telling it. However, I almost wish it went a little farther than it does. The film essentially ends with the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, an ironic, bittersweet high point (followed by Dee Dee Ramone’s overdose two months later). But as a fan, I really wished they had spent a little time on things like the making of their Roger Corman-produced musical Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, which is still a cult favorite (there’s a brief clip from it, but it’s never really discussed) and the moderate success of Joey’s posthumously released solo album Don’t Worry About Me.

Although it’s touched on early in the film, it would’ve been nice to wrap up by summarizing how, since the band’s breakup and the subsequent deaths of most of the members, the Ramones have essentially conquered the world by default! If anything, their following now is stronger and more devoted than ever. Their influence on the current rock music scene is inescapable, from young indie bands to multiplatinum-selling artists like U2 and Green Day. And their songs are, of all ironies, now being used in commercials to sell cars and computers! Could anyone have imagined any of this happening in 1977? I don’t think so. While I’m normally against the commercialization of “classic” rock songs (which I guess the Ramones now qualify, as strange as it sounds), in a way I think it’s kinda cool that my 8-year-old nephew knows the chorus to “Blitzkrieg Bop”. He may not know who the Ramones are (yet), but the fact that he knows their music at all is nothing short of a miracle. They may not have known it, but the Ramones had the last laugh after all.

I don’t imagine that a lot of non-fans will want to watch End of the Century (though younger fans of current “pop punk” bands like Blink 182, Good Charlotte and Simple Plan really should see it, to get a taste of where it all came from), but if you’re even a casual fan, I think it’s a must-see. And anyone who’s even slightly curious about the band and their history will find an informative and damn near comprehensive resource in this film. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see any of the DVD extras on my screener disc, but based on the movie alone, I can strongly recommend it for a rental or even a purchase if you’re so inclined. This is the good stuff, even if you don’t care about history…

***1/2 3/15/05

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