Directors: Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields
By Don Jacobson
With their 2004 punk rock documentary End of the Century, filmmakers Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields were able shed some light on the essential conflict of rock ‘n’ roll – that of romance vs. commerce, as personified by the bitter antagonism between Joey and Johnny Ramone, the yin and yang of one of the most influential rock bands ever, the Ramones. Their sad but fascinating personal feud reflects the eternal clash of money and art in the music marketplace.
Gramaglia and Fields’ work is not so much a documentary of the mid-’70s New York punk rock scene that spawned the Ramones (although it is that as well) as a much more interesting dissection of the lives and histories of singer Joey (Jeff Hyman), guitarist Johnny (John Cummings) and bassist Dee Dee (Douglas Colvin) Ramone, whose long slide into dysfunction is distressingly spelled out by all three of them as well as such key witnesses as Arturo Vega, the band’s longtime art director; producer and one-time drummer Tommy (Ramone) Erdelyi; tour manager Monte Melnick; and many, many other credible sources.
Several long interviews with band mastermind Johnny Ramone, who died of cancer in 2004 shortly after seeing the film, were especially enlightening. Johnny had long been known as a pretty unfriendly guy and a stern disciplinarian totally dedicated to making as much money as was humanly possible from the Ramones phenomenon. The level of honesty from Johnny – who before his death disputed his unflattering portrayal in the film – seemed debatable to me. He gives clipped and borderline defensive answers when Gramaglia and Fields quiz him about his feud with Joey, which began with Joey’s wanting to stray from Johnny’s hardcore signature buzzsaw sound and got much more personal when he won Joey’s girlfriend away from him. (Johnny remained married to Linda Cummings until his death; Joey died in 2001, also of cancer; the truly screwed-up Dee Dee died of a drug overdose the very next year). Much as he might not have liked it, I get the feeling we see the real Johnny Ramone here: first and foremost a businessman, and a hard one at that.
That revelation sheds considerable light on how the Ramones were able to so revolutionize the rock world even though they never had a chart-topping hit: Johnny Ramone’s determination to keep on touring year after year, in spite of the personal toll it was taking on Joey, Dee Dee and their various drummers, kept the band’s legend alive long enough to inspire the great alternative rock wave of the ‘90s. As New York punk rock journalist Legs McNeil says in the film, “They saved rock ‘n’ roll,” and for that we owe Johnny big. But if that’s true, then Joey Ramone is a real rock martyr: He clearly gave his life and health to keep rock alive as a vital art form, battling with Johnny all the way – and for that we owe him even more.
End of the Century is ultimately an engrossing study in how opposites attract in the most tragic and beautiful ways. Through interviews with Joey’s mother and their childhood friends and others, we see the emergence of two very different people: nerdy, tall, obsessive-compulsive Jeff Hyman and one-time budding teen criminal John Cummings. Their love of the early punk band the Stooges brought them together in Queens in the early 1970s, and soon they were executing a musical vision that Johnny and drummer/producer Erdelyi had for a variant of the Stooges’ sound: A wall of distorted guitar, a powerful, exceedingly stripped-down blast that both made love to and gleefully destroyed the same sweet, early pop sound of the ‘50s and ‘60s that the Beatles had once more gently used to launch their own revolution. Advances in amplifier technology made the chest-thumping racket possible, and mastering it demanded militaristic on-stage adherence to a deafening formula. But it was so loud, so different, so raw, that its effect was thrilling.
The band immediately became the “next big thing,” among the first stars of an emerging independent American recording industry. They were worshipped right off in England, where their first two records inspired a powerful punk culture phenomenon there. One of the best parts of End of the Century is Gramaglia and Field’s interview with Joe Strummer of the Clash, which turned out to be the last interview Strummer gave before his own untimely death from natural causes in 2002. Fittingly, he spent it describing his awe at first hearing the Ramones’ sonic assault live in 1976 and of how it sounded the death knell for the “safe” sort of then-popular rock he sneeringly called “phony Beatlemania.” It was the Ramones’ swaggering rejection of the comfortable compromises made in the ‘70s – in music, politics and life in general – that so excited the pissed-off, directionless British youth.
But the Ramones’ shot at the brass ring in their own country fell apart in 1980, when producer Phil Spector was summoned in a last-ditch attempt to make a hit record for them. The accounts from Johnny and especially co-producer Ed Stasium painted a picture of havoc during the making of the album End of the Century, in which Spector bullied, ranted and raved constantly and made the notoriously restless band do take after take of seemingly perfect parts. And in a particularly prescient segment, Stasium describes Spector holding the band hostage in his fenced-in mansion/studio at gunpoint. It wasn’t the first time Phil had displayed his firearms during the session. The stress of making the album contributed to the growing differences between Joey and Johnny: Spector was one of a precious few who heard potential in Joey’s barked singing style and became convinced it held hidden emotional depths. Joey agreed; Johnny didn’t. His take on Spector was skeptical. He says despite the producer’s status as the inventor of “the Wall of Sound” and his work with Beatles both before and after their break-up, he thought Spector was washed up. “Producers are nothing,” he says. “So he did some good stuff in the 1960s. Big deal. What has he done lately? The guy hasn’t had a hit in 15 years.”
Spector, the film notes, for all the trouble he caused, finally gave the preternaturally shy Joey the confidence he had long needed to develop his vocal style, something which shone through in the band’s later output when Joey’s real range became much more apparent. But Johnny was also right. End of the Century tanked, and no one in the band but Joey much liked it. In the 1980’s, the band, now thoroughly embittered with each other, slogged on through a combination of Johnny’s never-ending work ethic and the others’ dependence on him, with the only real payoff being the thrill of becoming the Ramones on stage every night. Even with the emergence of the Ramones-inspired alternative rock wave of the ‘90s, they couldn’t get a break-out hit. That’s when even Johnny decided enough was enough, and the band, after a farewell tour, hung it up for good in 1996, 22 years after they first got noticed.
Gramaglia and Fields assembled the film on a shoestring budget over a six-year period, and went through many legal hurdles to get the documentary shown. It’s quite an accomplishment. It benefited greatly from the timing of the Ramones’ deaths – something that as fans must have caused the pair great sadness. The fact that three of the band members died either during or shortly after the filming adds an element of pathos and inevitability to what was already essentially a dark story of suffering for art and ideals. It also lends quite a bit to the feeling that this film is an important cultural examination of the end of an era, or, if you will, a century. It has a sweep that only the best music documentaries can achieve and, like the Ramones’ brutally honest brand of rock itself, was clearly a labor of love. l