Arriving like an eerily prescient elegy, "End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones" chronicles the birth and tumultuous life of one of the most influential bands of the past three decades, whose co-founder, Johnny Ramone, died Wednesday.
Indeed, fans couldn't find a more appropriate memorial to Johnny than "End of the Century," which has been directed with tough love by Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields, with all of the guitar player's cold-eyed abrasiveness intact. If Johnny ultimately emerges as the savior of a band that doggedly recorded and toured for 20 years despite relative commercial obscurity, lineup changes and vicious intramural squabbles, he is also revealed as an emotionally distant martinet with all the warmth of a rock-and-roll Captain Bligh.
"End of the Century" begins, symbolically enough, at the end, when the Ramones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. By then the band's gangly, lovable lead singer, Joey Ramone, had died of lymphatic cancer. But his absence didn't squelch the unmistakable triumph with which the surviving original members -- Johnny, drummer Tommy Ramone and bassist Dee Dee Ramone -- greeted their acceptance from an industry that had largely ignored them throughout their entire career.
With home movie images of the band's early days in Queens, some choice archival footage of early performances at New York's legendary CBGB's, and lots of talking-head interviews with critics and musicians, Gramaglia and Fields build a cogent case that, when they formed in 1974, the Ramones effectively gave birth to punk rock. When Jeffrey Hyman, John Cummings, Tom Erdelyi and Douglas Colvin began hanging out together, they were glue-sniffing nerds who shared a passion for Iggy and the Stooges. Like so many great indigenous music scenes, the movement they spawned as the Ramones was simply a response to boredom -- with Queens and with the bloated, overproduced music of the era. Their punchy, poppy, three-chord fusillades cut directly against the grain of their time. "Everything was Earth Shoes, everything was brown," recalls critic Legs McNeil. "Everything was wheat groats."
Although they were embraced by fellow musicians and critics ("They just looked so great," explains their first manager, Danny Fields), the Ramones never had a top-40 hit in the United States, though they garnered huge followings in England and South America.
Most of the emotional core of "End of the Century" has to do not with the fatal break between Johnny and Joey when the former took up with the latter's girlfriend, but with the irony of bands from the Sex Pistols to Nirvana getting credit for a do-it-yourself aesthetic that even they acknowledged the Ramones had originated. Not only does "End of the Century" contain rare interviews with all the band members, but it features the last interview the late Joe Strummer ever gave, in which he maintains that his band, the Clash, "would never have happened" if it hadn't been for the Ramones' seminal, self-titled first album: "They started the whole thing."
Gramaglia and Fields made "End of the Century" over the course of 10 years and have heroically managed to get it released despite (what else) arguments with band members, managers and some Ramones relatives. The filmmakers don't shy away from the band's downward artistic and personal slide -- hastened by an ill-advised and potentially deadly collaboration with the producer Phil Spector, Johnny and Joey's romantic triangle and various bouts with substance abuse and physical ruin. It's a bummer, but somehow appropriate, that the story ends literally with a whimper, as the band's strung-out bassist cries "Poor Dee Dee" to himself (two months later, on June 5, 2002, he died of a heroin overdose).
If "End of the Century" lacks the narrative drive, endearing characters and psychological depth of this summer's great rock documentary "Some Kind of Monster," about Metallica (another group influenced by the Ramones), it still performs an important and invaluable service. It gets on the cinematic record that the Ramones were here, and that they mattered.
End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones (108 minutes, at the Landmark E Street) is not rated. It contains profanity and references to sexuality and drug use.