Rock groups are notoriously like dysfunctional families, but even when you factor in Tolstoy’s famous remark that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” the story of the Ramones stands out.
Unexpectedly influential but forever the bridesmaid in terms of mass popularity despite more than 20 years of touring and recording, the group finally gets its due in “End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones,” an engaging and emotional documentary by Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields.
Arguably the progenitors of punk rock, cited as a key influence by British groups the Sex Pistols and the Clash as well as American bands all the way up to alternative rockers Nirvana and Pearl Jam, this band has a history that is essential to a knowledge of the modern rock and popular culture worlds. “The Ramones,” says one observer, “saved rock ‘n’ roll.”
Not only that, whether performing live or in their off-the-wall 1979 film “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” the Ramones were fun, the mordantly amusing lyrics to songs like “I Wanna Be Sedated” and “The KKK Took My Baby Away” melding nicely with their trademark insistent beat. Against all probability, they came to typify the unstoppable energy and intensity that rock cannot exist without.
But what involves us is not their place in rock history, symbolized by a 2002 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that opens “End of the Century.” What audiences will want to talk about is the way the film reveals the quixotic human dynamic between the band members, the personal neuroses that simultaneously kept the group together and pulled it apart.
For though the Ramones’ pose of giving everyone the same surname was just that, a pose, in reality the band had the kind of deeply intertwined and ultimately destructive relationships with each other that only blood relatives usually manage.
Co-directors and high school friends Gramaglia and Fields share a longtime passion for the group, and it was Gramaglia’s ability to get all the Ramones to open up and be candid on camera in multiple interviews that is the making of their project. Even Joey and Dee Dee, both of whom died after the end of principal photography, are heard from.
It’s in the film’s pro forma opening sections, talking about the boys’ misspent youth in the Forest Hills section of Queens, New York, that “End of the Century” is least involving. Teens who had little in common besides being outcasts and listening to Iggy and the Stooges, they almost had to be coerced into joining together to form a band.
And not the usual group, either. What Johnny Ramone realized after watching the New York Dolls was “how great a band could be with limited musicianship.” It was, frankly, to go against the grain of the indulgent, virtuoso instrumentalists of the early ‘70s that the Ramones were put together in 1974.
If those groups tended toward songs that filled up entire sides of albums, the Ramones insisted on short, stripped-down tunes, often only two minutes long, and so packed together in a set that, someone remembers, “you couldn’t get a cigarette paper between their songs.” Their quintessential rock look of jeans matched with black leather jackets, which remained constant for decades, only added to their mystique.
The irony of the Ramones position in the music world, which the film explores, is that though they were respected, they had a hard time getting major gigs. Returning after wowing England in 1976, they couldn’t get hired in New Jersey. Hard-core groups like the Pistols soon made punk a dirty word and even working with legendary producer Phil Spector did not result in the promised commercial miracles.
That experience, which the film goes into in scary detail, was a factor in the personal disintegration of the Ramones, which for a small, tight band went through several changes. The two people who stayed from the beginning to the end, lead singer Joey and lead guitarist Johnny, were the people who had always liked each other the least. Finally, acting like characters in a romantic melodrama, Johnny steals Joey’s girl and the two men stop speaking to each other, though they continue to play and tour together for years.
“End of the Century,” which is named after that ill-fated Spector-produced album, takes no sides in these dilemmas. It just presents them, mixes in vintage performance footage, and lets us marvel at how much personal chaos and global influence a few guys from Queens could create. “It’s accurate,” Johnny Ramone is quoted as saying on the film’s poster. “It left me disturbed.” It will likely do the same for you.
‘End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones’
MPAA rating: unrated
Times guidelines: adult language and subject matter
Released by Magnolia Pictures. Directors Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields. Producers Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields. Executive producers Jan Rofekamp, Diana Holtzberg, Andrew Hurwitz. Editors John Gramaglia and Jim Fields. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.
Nuart Theater, 11272 Santa Monica Boulevard, West Los Angeles. AMC The Block, The City Drive, Orange County.