If you love the Ramones, you really shouldn’t watch the 2003 documentary film End of the Century–it will only break your heart.
I love the Ramones; I’ve loved the Ramones since I was a kid. I was lucky enough to see them in concert about twelve years ago (even then we were hip to the fact that the Ramones without Dee Dee–the C.J. version of Ramones–was not really the real Ramones). My favorite memory of the show was Joey saying that the venue of the show was built on top of a pet cemetery. Then they played “Pet Cemetery.” Genius.
So well and anyway. End of the Century. This is an excellent music documentary, a standout in a genre which is generally hit or miss. Unlike weaker films that rely on narrators or musicians influenced by the subject*, End of the Century is composed entirely of interviews (both archival and original to the film) with the Ramones themselves (Dee Dee, Tommy, Joey, Johnny, Marky, Richie (Richie wears a conservative suit in his interview, and mostly complains about not getting a taste of “that T-shirt money”) and C.J. (C.J. comes across as naive, energetic, and wholly endearing, making me feel kind of bad about my previous opinions of him). In addition to the Ramones’ first-hand accounts, there are plenty of interviews with managers and friends and family and roadies and so on–eyewitnesses who candidly relate the good, the bad, and the ugly in excruciating detail (there is plenty of ugly). Raw live footage dating back to the early 70s brings to life the sheer volume and bizarre intensity of a Ramones show.
So why so heartbreaking? Well, here’s the deal. We know that the John and Paul didn’t like each other. We know that Mick and Keith bicker. We know that bands have “creative differences” and egos get bruised and so and so on. But with the Ramones, well, I guess I always thought of them, as well, cartoons of themselves. But End of the Century makes it very clear that these guys were very, very serious about themselves and what they did. They were in no way cultivating an image: the Ramones really were what you thought they were. And they hated each other. Like, years-of-not-talking-to-each-other hatred, right up until their retirement. They were bitter–they really wanted to be successful. Now, I always thought of the Ramones as legendary, as huge, as the original punk band. But they wanted to be huge, huge like the Beach Boys or the Beatles. Hits on the radio huge (a quick aside: the accounts of working with Phil Spector on the 1980 album End of the Century, in the hopes of gaining a top 10 hit, are hilarious. Apparently Phil held the band plus entourage at gunpoint, threatening to shoot them if they returned to the hotel. The reason for Phil’s hostage-taking: he wanted them to hang out and watch movies. But I’m sure Spector’s like, totally not guilty of murdering that chick in his house). So a lot of the movie is the Ramones lamenting that they “never made it” (again, to me this was ludicrous). But really it’s the hatred, the meanness of their interviews, their complete dismissal of each other that I found most disconcerting (particularly heartbreaking is hearing Johnny’s non-affected nonchalance over Joey’s relatively recent (to the time of the movie’s shooting) death from lymphoma). Maybe I’m just a foolish fan who wanted my cartoons.
The film ends by noting that Dee Dee died of a heroin overdose two months after the film finished shooting. Johnny Ramone died in 2004. The principal members of the band all died within a few short years of each other, like married folks often do.
To end on a lighter note, check out this footage from the film, featuring Dee Dee’s rap project, Dee Dee King’s “Funky Man” (listen for this embarrassing nugget: “I’m a Negro too!”)
* There are one or two very brief interviews (like one or two sentences) with famous fans, including, of course, Thurston Moore, who is contractually obligated to appear in any film about any musician. Check out his prolific (and incomplete–unless my memory fails me he’s also in the 1995 Brian Wilson documentary I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times) filmography here.