Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Ramones – End of the Century
RAMONES – END OF THE CENTURY
USA 2004 (copyright-dated 2003) : Jim FIELDS & Michael GRAMAGLIA : 111 mins
When the Ramones bring that sign onstage that says “GABBA GABBA HEY,” what
it really stands for is “We accept you.” Once you get past the armor of dog collars,
black leather and S&M affectations, you’ve got some of the gentlest or at least most
harmless people in the world… almost all their violence is self-directed.
Lester Bangs, Village Voice, 30th April 1979
It’s just as well I knew before going in to Ramones – End of the Century what the ‘Gabba gabba hey’ sign meant – or rather, what it “stood for”. Because there’s no explanation in this very watchable, entertaining, occasionally inspiring documentary about the legendary proto-punk four-piece from the New York suburb of Forest Hills. Nor are we told why Messrs Erdelyi (Tommy), Colvin (DeeDee), Hyman (Joey) and Cummings (Johnny) chose to adopt the nom de punk ‘Ramone’ – apparently something to do with a pseudonym once adopted by Paul McCartney.
Nor is there any mention of the fact that Erdelyi was born and brought up in his parents’ native Hungary, or that DeeDee was born and brought up in Berlin, where his dad was posted in the US military, or how this impacted on such a supposedly ‘All American’ outfit. These backstory elements would be well known by any self-respecting Ramones fans, of course – and they’re likely to prove End of the Century‘s most satisfied audiences. Even they, however, might just query the decision to name the movie after what seems to have been one of the band’s lesser albums.
Non-initiates, meanwhile, may balk at the somewhat hagiographic approach taken by Fields & Gramaglia, though if any American group deserves a full-blown two-hour big-screen celebration it is indeed probably this lot, who pretty much define the much-overused term ‘seminal’. Then again, there’s always something troubling about the whole idea of making any kind of documentary about punk legends – the ‘movement’ was (and is) about the here and now, not about looking back nostalgically over your shoulder at the giants of yesteryear.
And it’s almost always the case that people who do make films about punk are themselves so old and clapped-out that they adopt decidedly non-punk methods to do so: End of the Century adheres slavishly to the tried-and-tested archive-footage/talking-head format, bookended with elegaic farewells to the two Ramones who died while the movie was being compiled*. This form/content disparity is especially troubling when we get to the 1980s, and MTV is starting to exert its influence – the Ramones weren’t willing to file off their rougher edges to obtain airplay and mainstream acceptance, but Fields & Gramaglia’s film is sufficiently slick to slot right into the schedules of MTV or even VH1.
That said, there’s much to be said for the methodical approach, which gives us an objective view of the disparate personalities and troubled dynamics of this most ‘gang-like’ of bands. Despite their longevity as a band, however, the Ramones – who famously never aged or changed their appearance – didn’t really get up to anything especially remarkable off-stage: there were some member changes here and there, Johnny and Joey fell out over some girl. But apart from DeeDee’s hilariously ill-advised excursion into rap we’re a long way from Spinal Tap type high-jinks.
Fields & Gramaglia tiptoe around one of the more promising, unexpected elements of the story – Johnny’s rabidly Republican views – but, perhaps wary of this most volatile and confrontational of Ramones, pull back from any proper investigation or analysis. Here, as elsewhere, you wish they’d show just a little more of the in-yer-face punk-as-fuckness that the Ramones – and Lester Bangs – possessed in such copious abundance.
* postscript: Joey Ramone died 15th September, 2004
by Neil Young