Unlike The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, whose journeys from scraps to glory are well documented and endlessly poured over by their fans, the Ramones have always been something of an enigma. They were a group of New York fellows who dressed the same, sounded the same, and retained their privacy whether they wanted to or not. "End of the Century" (IMDb listing) sets out to understand the group dynamic that held the band together for more than 20 years. The film opens up old wounds and gives fans fascinating info to salivate over.
Starting as an evolution of the glam rock scene in the early 1970s, Joey Ramone (born Mark Hyman), Johnny Ramone (John Cummings), Dee Dee Ramone (Douglas Colvin), and Tommy Ramone (Tommy Erdelyi) came together to spit out what they knew best: hard-driving, two-minute rock songs on subjects ranging from sniffing glue and killing johns to everlasting love and general teenage isolation. An immediate sensation in New York, the Ramones eventually released 18 studio and live albums, and played a big part in creating the punk rock scene (which launched the careers of The Clash and the Sex Pistols). The Ramones succeeded in conquering most of the globe, and starred in an adored cult movie, but were unable to create much of a sensation at home, where they wanted success the most.
With "End of the Century," documentarians Jim Fields and Michael Gramaglia don't arrange a traditional discography of the band, where the tale progresses from album to album, year to year. "Century" starts off at ground zero, and like a rocket with engine failure, the film flutters around picking up crucial information here and there, never achieving a consistent whole. The approach is frustrating, especially when the film doesn't even address the classic motion picture, "Rock 'n' Roll High School," or a good chunk of the band's later years, which gave birth to what may have been one of their best albums, 1989's "Brain Drain." The goal of "Century" is not to be comprehensive (you just can't do that in 110 minutes), but to initiate an understanding of what made this beloved band tick, even when faced with personnel changes and, ultimately, death, which took Joey and Dee Dee away three years ago.
Through archival performance footage and new interviews, the filmmakers paint a picture of a band that started out loving the music scene and embracing their cult fame, but began slowly dissolving on the inside when it became clear that their success could never break through to stardom in America. "Century" presents the three main players as time remembers them: Joey the shy, quiet frontman, Johnny the spine of the group, and Dee Dee, the lovable but heroin-soaked flake. "Century" ventures to go beyond what is commonly known, including a reveal of Johnny's fervent conservatism ("God Bless President Bush" is his Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame acceptance speech) and restless desire to keep his band together, despite growing animosity toward his bandmates. A bombshell is also dropped when he talks openly about stealing Joey's girlfriend away years back (he's married to her to this day), which caused a Grand Canyon-sized crack between the former friends, which was never healed, and was only tolerated to keep the band together (this is seen clearly in Johnny's indifference to questions about Joey's death).
"Century" also covers violent and bizarre 1979 recording sessions with Phil Spector, Dee Dee's hilarious dalliance with rap in the late 1980s (featuring a clip of his video, which needs to be seen to be believed), drummer Marky's (one of Tommy's many replacements) alcohol-fueled monkey business, and the story of C.J., who took over bass duties when Dee Dee flew the coop in 1990. The footage here is also entertaining, including one sequence where the band openly argues on stage over what song to play next. Absolutely priceless.
"End of the Century" is an excellent film regardless of its noticeable flaws, and hopefully it will prove to be a first step toward a deeper investigation into the Ramones and their curious ways. For fans, this is precious material and should not be missed.
Filmfodder Grade: B