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Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2004

The freaks that made good



End of the Century

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Michael Gramaglia
Running time: 108 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

My first introduction to The Ramones came, fittingly enough for a film critic, in a cinema . . . but, hey, they were never a band you heard on the radio anyway. It was early 1980 at a midnight screening in Harvard Square, the air -- as was customary in that more laid-back era -- was thick with pot smoke, but it couldn't have rendered any more alien and bizarre what was going down on screen.

News photo
The Ramones (from left: Johnny, Joey and Dee Dee) rock out.

"Rock 'n' Roll High School" was, like everything about The Ramones, an attempt to be "normal," to make a band movie like "Help" or a high-school comedy like "Grease," but ending up with something that was just, well, off. Here were four guys, well into their late 20s, cavorting around a high school dressed like '50s bikers (the leather-jacket icon of the day was The Fonz on "Happy Days") but with mutant bowl haircuts, and singing songs about pinheads and sniffing glue. It was trying to be a regular rock-as-rebellion riff for teen audiences, but it totally ignored the aesthetic that "regular" teenagers would go for.

This was a time when rock meant love songs and long guitar solos, and The Ramones had neither. They were misclassified as "new wave," as if artists such as Television, Patti Smith, Devo, Elvis Costello and Pere Ubu could be seen as indicative of anything. Like all these bands, The Ramones stood out, they were different, they didn't care about whether you wanted to shag them or not.

While all those other bands had pretensions to art, The Ramones were more like bratty kids, slamming out two-minute three-chord throwaways like "Blitzkrieg Bop." They often fought on stage and gave off a general air of negativity that included both the occasional Nazi reference and a stated desire to play "pure, white rock 'n' roll, with no blues influence whatsoever." This was a stark contrast indeed to the "peaceful, easy feeling" that The Eagles epitomized in mainstream pop. Still, the band's monosyllabic approach left many wondering whether this was all a big conceptual joke, or au naturel ironic-stupid or just plain stupid.

There's evidence for both in "End of the Century," a compelling look at the band's career over four decades. Commenting on when Andy Warhol and his entourage started showing up at Ramones gigs at the seminal N.Y. club CBGB's, guitarist Johnny Ramone -- always a jerky Queens kid at heart -- recalls frankly "To me, they were freaks." He then adds, "We didn't try to be offensive. We wanted to be normal."

But then the film has voices like Roberta Bayley, who worked the door at CBGB's in the late '70s, who says, "It was almost conceptual art," and hers is one of many voices to credit the band with a sly, studied approach to style and content. But this falls apart again when we're confronted with bassist Dee Dee Ramone, "the eternal 6-year-old," a one-time street hustler and long-term junkie who seems too scatty to plan breakfast. His goal, like Johnny's, seems to have been nothing more than playing in a successful band.

The Ramones, however, were a band who passed from the underground to the Rock 'n' Roll Hall Of Fame, without ever enjoying success in-between. They were a hard-touring band -- their last gig in 1996, was No. 2262. But they had to be: They were an institution, but one that was quickly eclipsed by bands who stole from their playbook: The Sex Pistols, The Clash -- and let's not even mention Green Day.

Unlike the Pistols, however, The Ramones endured, in what seems to have been a deal with the devil. The movie makes it clear that it was Johnny -- a bullying control-freak and unqualified asshole -- who kept the band together, even as his bandmates, particularly the sensitive and troubled singer Joey, came to hate his guts. No small feat, however, when one looks at what happened to the Pistols.

It's this clash of personalities that makes "End of the Century" a fascinating watch, even if you're not a fan of the band. Sadly, the voice of Joey is missing from most of this documentary, as he passed away from cancer in 2001 at age 49.

But the other band members are more than willing to talk. There are some hilarious moments with Dee Dee, as he discusses his failed career as a rap artist, and we learn the Spinal Tap-ish story of the band's ever-changing drummers, Marky, Tommy and Richie. It's hard not to be shocked, though, when we learn that Joey and Johnny spent the better part of two decades barely even speaking to each other after a falling out over a girl. Johnny didn't even go to visit Joey on his deathbed, because -- as he put it -- he "wouldn't want anyone to come crying over me."

One wonders why anyone would put up with a grade-A jerk like that for so long. The answer to that question pretty much defines the allure of performance. For Joey Ramone, a gawky kid plagued by obsessive-compulsive disorders, being a Ramone gave him an identity and a sense of acceptance that he knew he'd never find elsewhere.

In a larger sense, that was the message The Ramones gave their fans, the core belief of the punk scene that they very much kickstarted: Don't fit in, create your own identity.

It's no coincidence that The Ramones' best-known chorus -- "Gabba Gabba Hey" -- was lifted from the chanting pinheads in the cult film "Freaks." Despite Johnny's assertions to the contrary, The Ramones always did appeal to freaks.



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