- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 16, 2004

We’re several years past the end of the last century, and, finally, the Ramones are getting something like their due.

The ‘70s punk pioneers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 (not soon enough for singer Joey Ramone, who died of cancer the previous year), and now they get a big-screen homage — “End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones,” a documentary by Jim Fields and Michael Gramaglia.

In a parallel universe, the Ramones were as big as the Beatles.

Fans mobbed their limo. They sold out soccer stadiums seating 30,000. There, in Brazil, the Ramones were the pop stars they always expected to be.

Then they’d come back home, gas up the van and crisscross the country playing bars and colleges. The leather-bound misfits of Forest Hills, Queens, may have been rock-press darlings and East Village pinups, but they were also commercial poison: They never broke through to mass acceptance in the way that bands like the Clash later did under the Ramones’ unmistakable influence.

That lesser peers from the original class of pathbreaking CBGB bands like Blondie and Talking Heads made it big in the ‘80s added insult to injury.

“End of the Century” — a low-budget affair that gives good history, even if its interviewers’ questions are often inaudible and it assumes you know who folks like Punk magazine co-founders Legs McNeil and John Holmstrom are — ticks off what should’ve been Ramones milestones, including the 1979 movie “Rock and Roll High School” and an album helmed by the hit-making producer Phil Spector.

But the hits never followed.

They knew about four guitar chords among them — one per Ramone. Bass player Dee Dee Ramone (who died of a heroin overdose in 2002 and whose unconsciously comical presence in this movie steals the show) couldn’t play and sing at the same time, obliging the gangly, painfully nerdy Joey Ramone (aka Jeffrey Hyman), originally the drummer, to take center stage as perhaps the unlikeliest lead singer in rock history.

As fans of proto-punk bands like the Stooges and the New York Dolls, they quickly forged an unforgettable sound. It was futuristic in its unnaturally forced beat. At the same time, songs like “I Wanna Be Sedated” and “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” were familiar, even oddly comforting in their return to the concision, tunefulness and playfulness of the classic rock ‘n’ roll singles of the era before LPs, FM radio and drugs gave rock musicians more creative freedom than they could usefully exploit.

The documentary is justified in insisting on the magic of the Ramones’ galvanizing simplicity. It instilled in bands such as U2 the confidence to write and perform even as they had doubts about their musical capabilities. (There’s a smattering of such testimonies here from famous Ramones fans such as Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett.)

All too typically, though, the Ramones were riven by personality conflicts. Beneath the surface of unity that the pseudo-familial name and biker-gang band uniform provided them, the Ramones were unstable almost from the start. Dee Dee (aka Doug Colvin) was a drug addict. Drummer Marky (aka Mark Bell) was an alcoholic. Guitarist Johnny (aka John Cummings) was an anti-drug right-winger, while Joey aligned himself with Manhattan’s Jewish left wing. Joey was obsessive-compulsive, careful to hop over cracks in the sidewalk. Original drummer Tommy Ramone didn’t need drugs to make him flip out. The rigors of the road were enough.

Making matters worse, Joey’s girlfriend left him for Johnny, and while the two continued to perform together publicly, they stopped speaking privately. That conflict, in a way, almost prevented “End of the Century” from going public: The Joey camp complained that Johnny dominated earlier versions of the movie, and it could be argued that the latter’s humorless demeanor dominates this one, too.

By necessity, the movie gets personal. It ends on a bitter note because the Ramones had little to feel sweet about.

“End of the Century” suffers from an apparent lack of pro-shot archives of the band’s live concerts. The Ramones deserve a movie with production values that do justice to the incomparable excitement of their visually arresting performances. Flailing their instruments in their biker jackets on a stage bathed in intense white light, set against an enormous backdrop with the official Ramones seal, it came off like a hilarious but still commanding parody of a totalitarian youth rally.

This well-meaning but amateur documentary isn’t up to reproducing it. Maybe it needs to be re-created in an original biographical feature. Tim Burton, are you busy?

**

TITLE: “End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones”

RATING: No MPAA rating (Contains profanity)

CREDITS: Directed by Jim Fields and Michael Gramaglia. Produced by Mr. Fields, Mr. Gramaglia and Tom Erdelyi.

RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes.

WEB SITE: https://www.endofthecentury.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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