Clip: Ramones movie in limbo
Rock Rock, Rock 'n' Roll Standoff
By BILL WERDE
Published: April 25, 2004
OVER the last 15 months, "End of the Century," a documentary about punk
rock's founding fathers, the Ramones, has been shown at major film
festivals in New York, Toronto and Berlin. It has attracted a following
among influential figures like Nicolas Cage and the director Jim Jarmusch.
It has been praised in Variety, Entertainment Weekly and The Los Angeles
Times for its unflinching portrayal of the dysfunction that both fueled and
undermined the Ramones.
About the only thing the film hasn't gained is a release date.
The filmmakers, Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields, say the movie has not
been released after nearly seven years of work because of the very same
tenuous relationships they hoped to document.
With their super-fast, two-minute, three-chord songs, the Ramones almost
single-handedly created punk rock in the mid-70's, inspiring bands from the
Clash to U2 to Pearl Jam along the way. But while the Ramones presented a
united front on their album covers ? black leather jackets, canvas Converse
sneakers and bowl haircuts ? the band was fraught with tension and jealousy
among its members. Johnny Ramone, the guitarist, ran the band like a
dictator. Dee Dee Ramone, the bassist, was a heroin addict (he died of an
overdose in 2002). A cast of drummers came and went because they were
either too drunk, too opposed to constant touring or too upset over not
getting a larger share of the money from T-shirt sales. And Joey Ramone,
the singer, was dumped by his fiancée, Linda, for Johnny in the early 80's.
Joey and Johnny did not talk to each other during the 15 more years the
Ramones toured until they retired in 1996. Joey and Johnny, in fact, never
reconciled before Joey died of lymphatic cancer in April 2001.
"Part of what made the Ramones great was this negative energy they had that
really worked for them," said Mr. Gramaglia. "It hasn't always worked so
well for us."
When Mr. Fields and Mr. Gramaglia, now both 40, began the project in 1998,
they were novice filmmakers, full of passion and completely lacking in any
real sense of how to make a movie. They had met in 1980 at Mamaroneck High
School in Westchester County and bonded over cars and the music they both
loved ? outcast rock like the Buzzcocks, Clash and, of course, the Ramones.
When he proposed making the documentary, Mr. Gramaglia was an assistant to
Ira Herzog, the Ramones' longtime accountant. "All along," Mr. Fields said,
"Joey was afraid it was going to be a movie about Johnny's perspective, and
Johnny was afraid it would be a movie about Joey's perspective."
But Joey died before the filmmakers could interview him. "He e-mailed me on
New Year's Eve and said he was looking forward to a three-hour therapy
session," Mr. Gramaglia said. The next day, Joey walked out of his East
Village apartment, slipped on some ice and broke his hip. His cancer killed
him before he could leave the hospital.
Instead, Mr. Gramaglia and Mr. Fields used audio recordings of Joey that
they obtained from Donna Gaines, a reporter for The Village Voice. The
filmmakers submitted a rough cut of the movie to the Slamdance Film
Festival in Utah. It was accepted and shown for the first time publicly at
the festival in January 2003.
Even when the movie was shown at Slamdance, the filmmakers had not obtained
permission to use archival concert footage and music from the Ramones and
other bands. They had also never gotten the Ramones to sign releases for
their interviews, which took more than three years to conduct. Now Dave
Frey, the manager who represents Joey's half of Ramones Productions Inc.,
and Mickey Leigh, Joey's brother, say they will withhold their approval
until the movie contains more Joey. "He's totally absent," Mr. Frey said.
"Why not take out the three minutes of Joey and call it `End of the
Century, the Story of Three Ramones'?"
The film's release has been further complicated by the filmmakers'
financial situation. By the time the film was presented at Slamdance, Mr.
Gramaglia and his brother, John, a producer, had amassed a debt of about
$65,000 in production expenses. They owed Chinagraph, an editing house,
another $150,000 and they estimated they would have to spend several
hundred thousand dollars more to secure the rights to music and concert
Meanwhile, distributors were offering them $30,000 for the rights to the
movie. "We assumed we would make such a great movie that the Ramones would
just love it and sign off, and someone would say: `It's great. Here's a
million dollars,' " Mr. Gramaglia said. "We were so naïve."
Mr. Fields laughs at how clueless he was then. Penelope Spheeris, the
director of the punk rock documentary "The Decline of Western Civilization"
as well as "Wayne's World," introduced "End of the Century" at the
Slamdance festival. Afterward, she found Mr. Fields. "She was like, `Wow,
do you have all the music rights?' I was like: `Yeah! Sure! Totally!' I had
no idea what she was talking about."
The version of the film that played at Slamdance and the TriBeCa Film
Festival was a bit unwieldy at more than two hours. (It has since been
shortened to 90 minutes.) But its tracing of the band's origins from
glue-sniffing toughs from Queens to kings of punk resonated with a
sincerity and sweetness that won over critics and the audience. Among its
highlights are the last known interview with Joe Strummer, the Clash
frontman, before he died of a heart attack in December 2002; early
performance footage of the Ramones at the famous Manhattan club CBGB's, in
which they fight with each other onstage over which song to play; and
several hilarious observations from the spacey (but incisive) Dee Dee. More
than anything else, the film chronicles a band chasing a breakthrough hit
that never comes.
"The first night I watched it," Johnny Ramone said, "I thought, `Whoa, this
is dark.' It actually disturbed my sleep. If someone asked, `Did you guys
get along?' I'd say no. But seeing a whole movie dedicated to our not
getting along? It's like we were a bunch of nuts!"
Later he showed the film to one of his friends, Mr. Cage. (Johnny was the
best man at Mr. Cage's wedding to Lisa Marie Presley). He in turn set up a
screening at the offices of the Creative Artists Agency in Beverly Hills
last May. The screening was attended by film and music industry luminaries
including Sofia Coppola, Adrien Brody, Flea and Anthony Kiedis of the Red
Hot Chili Peppers. "The Ramones were a relentlessly honest band," Mr. Cage
said in an e-mail message from Chicago, where he's working on a new film.
"I think this documentary shows just how honest."
Today, Mr. Gramaglia and Mr. Fields are working to find more footage of
Joey Ramone to add to the movie and to secure distribution deals to cover
their expenses. The filmmakers say they are negotiating with the Warner
Music Group for the DVD rights and with Magnolia Pictures for a theatrical
release of the movie. The filmmakers are optimistic that the film will come
out this summer.
Since they began making "End of the Century," Mr. Gramaglia and Mr. Fields
have both gotten married. Mr. Gramaglia's parents died. Mr. Fields has a
2-year-old son, and his wife, Maria Arbusto, no longer allows him to
discuss the film at home. "We sacrificed everything," he said. "Maybe that
was dumb, but it was a great story about an important band that no one
understood. The Ramones just wanted to be a band and follow their passion.
And that's what we did."