This weekend I finally got around to watching the Ramones documentary, End Of The Century, on DVD. I had missed it when it came out – I suspect that it had a limited theatrical run outside of the festival circuit -and always knew it would be a DVD rental someday. Well I though it was a great, if depressing, documentary about one of the most important bands in the history of rock. Yes, I said that. One of the most important bands in the history of rock. Think about it, without the Ramones, no Clash, no Sex Pistols and certainly no Green Day, maybe even no Replacements or Husker Du or even Nirvana. I even hear Ramones in power pop bands like The Smithereens- listen to “A Girl Like You” and tell me Pat DiNizio isn’t in the Joey Ramone register. The story of the band is, like I said, a dismal and depressing affair. By the time the film debuted, in 2003, Joey was already dead from Lymphoma. Dee Dee had OD’d shortly after his last interview in the movie and Johnny died a year after the film was made. A quote on the DVD box says he saw the film and found it disturbingly accurate. I learned a lot about the Ramones, and I thought I knew a lot about them already, they were very important in my household (I still remember how if my older brother Peter was having a rough day, he’d run up to his room, slam the door behind him, and play “Blitzkrieg Bop” on his stereo as if to blast the angst away). And yet it was, like white suburban blues, happy music that took your disappointment and made you feel positive, somehow in control of a world gone mad.
I had no idea, back then, that Johnny was hardcore right wing Republican often at odds with Joey who was an extremely liberal activist (I don’t seem to recall Johnny beside Joey in Little Steven’s Sun City video, after all). And yet, according to the filmmakers Jim Field (I wonder if he’s related to Danny Fields?) and Michael Gramaglia, Johnny Ramone (John Cummings to his family) was the business head of the group, as essential as the drill sergeant (and protector of “the brand”) as Dee Dee (Doug Colvin) was to the true punk essence of the material. Joey (Jeff Hyman) was the geek who loved rock and roll, the male Patti Smith, who really understood the transformative power of rock and how, if you close your eyes and attack the microphone you could be your own David Johansen (young Stephen Morrissey had a similar epiphany in Manchester, resulting in the Smiths). The film also reminds one that, despite how we lionized (canonized?) them for being defiantly uncommercial, the band wanted nothing less than a big stinky NUMBER ONE HIT RECORD – which sadly they never got.
As a chaser, I rented Hedwig and The Angry Inch again (speaking of the New York Dolls) which on second viewing, I loved even more. For entirely different reasons. The nuances in John Cameron Mitchell’s performance (think Joel Gray’s Cabaret “emcee” crossed with lip smacking Cher from her TV variety years) touch a wide variety of emotions, he’s funny, he’s tragic, he’s glib, he’s poetically confessional, but he’s never less than compelling. If Bugs Bunny was a “scissor sister” then Hedwig is your, um, man?
Yes, the original Off Broadway musical that resulted in the film wouldn’t have happened without a huge debt to The Rocky Horror Picture Show although I found myself thinking more of Ken Russell’s Tommy some of the time, and a few Wim Wenders films too. The other essential truth of Hedwig and the Angry Inch is the musical score by Stephen Trask, a tour de force of Jim Steinmanish proportion but with enough earnest Hunky Dory Bowie-ism and real live punk rock ferociousness that you couldn’t call it “show tunes”. It’s not a parody of rock (as, frankly the Rocky Horror Picture Show could be termed, although I love it) it’s real rock.
The question of the day then.
What are your favourite (and favorite) rock music themed films?
They can be the best music documentaries or even narrative films that use the motifs of rock. So for instance, A Hard Day’s Night is not a documentary but it could be one of the best music movies ever made. Or you could choose Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten – a great documentary about the late mainstay of the Clash.
The Ramones – from Queens to Eternity!