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Clip: Ramones movie in limbo

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  • Carl Zimring
    http://www.nytimes.com/2004/04/25/arts/music/25WERD.html Rock Rock, Rock n Roll Standoff By BILL WERDE Published: April 25, 2004 OVER the last 15 months,
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 25, 2004
      http://www.nytimes.com/2004/04/25/arts/music/25WERD.html

      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
      footage.

      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." 
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