End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones Review
The Ramones weren’t brothers – none of them even had that as a surname. They were simply four kids from Queens who formed a band. They came from the same New York punk scene that centred on the CBGBs club, that also spawned Blondie, Television and Talking Heads., though they were less arty than these bands, specialising in short, loud, fast three-chord rock. There’s dumb music aplenty out there, but it takes brains to produce great dumb music. And The Ramones, at least in their first four albums, were frequently great. With various lineup changes, they lasted twenty-one years, calling it a day in 1995. Lead singer Joey and original bassist Dee Dee both passed away at age 49. And nowadays plenty of bands look back on them, and the whole era, for inspiration – not least The Strokes, the Von Bondies and, to a lesser extent and with a side order of blues, The White Stripes.
End of the Century tells the band’s story from their beginnings up to the band’s dissolution, in roughly straight-ahead chronological fashion. It was filmed in 2002: Joey had died the year before, but is represented by archive footage and interviews. Dee Dee was still alive, as was friend of the band Joe Strummer, who is interviewed here. By the end of the year, both were dead, and the film is dedicated to the memory of all three. (Since the film was released, Johnny has joined them in the afterlife, in 2004 at the age of 55.) Other interviewees include original manager Danny Fields, record producer Rick Rubin, Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Chris Stein and others, including all the surviving band members.
Much of the film is taken up by exploring the dynamic between frontman Joey and guitarist Johnny, the only two founder members to still be there at the end. Their relationship was more than just the business head versus the creative head, though there were elements of this. It’s certainly clear that Johnny did keep a tight control on the band, and doesn’t apologise for it – perfect cartoon punks they may have been, but that took hard work. They were polar opposites in many ways, not least politically: Joey the liberal, tall, thin and fragile-looking, Johnny the hardheaded Republican. Dee Dee, on the other hand, was as “street” as they come, with a history of hustling which he wrote about in the song “53rd and 3rd”. He left the band and made a misbegotten rap record. He looks much the worse for wear in his interviews, though it was an accidental heroin overdose that finished him off. Of the other members, original drummer Tommy (the only founder member still alive as I write this) left after three albums for a career in record production, later drummer Richie (incongruously dressed in suit and tie) left after a dispute over T-shirt royalties.
There’s plenty of stuff where that came from in this documentary, which if you have any liking for the music and the era makes for a highly entertaining, affectionate if not uncritical, hour and three quarters. There’s plenty of archive performance footage to satisfy longterm fans, and there’s enough in here for newcomers to encourage them to check out the original albums.
End of the Century is transferred to DVD in a ratio of 1.78:1, anamorphically enhanced. Viewed on a PC monitor, the image is slightly windowboxed for most of the running time, only occasionally using the full width. On a TV set you most likely won’t notice this due to overscan. The interview footage was shot on video and is generally sharp and bright. The archive footage is a different matter, a combination of black and white and colour film and video in various states of repair. Some of it is in remarkably good condition, considering, some of it murky and riddled with artefacts.
There are three soundtrack options, a 2.0 mix (Dolby Surround) and 5.1 mixes in Dolby Digital and DTS. As much of this film consists of interviews and monophonic archive footage, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is rarely called upon. It only comes to the fore in some of the later concert sequences and some of the tracks played on the soundtrack which are presumably derived from studio recordings. I had hoped to be DTS-enabled by the time I wrote this review but it wasn’t to be – but given the nature of the material I doubt that the DTS track would be any different. To be honest, the Dolby Surround track is quite satisfactory for most of the film, only just losing out on the 5.1 in terms of clarity and separation, but not by much.
Apart from some fixed lyric subtitles in the concert footage (necessary due to the muddy sound and Joey’s poor diction at that time of their career), there are no subtitles on this disc – always a bad move. There are sixteen chapter stops and the DVD is encoded for all regions.
The DVD has a commentary from Danny Baker and Charles Shaar Murray. This appears to be a late addition, as the sample cover slick that came with the review checkdisc doesn’t list it, nor do most of the websites that sell the DVD. Never mind: it’s a very engaging chat from two men who wrote for the NME in the Seventies and clearly get on very well together. Baker was a longtime fan, and Murray reported from the New York punk scene as it happens. Their affection for the band is very evident, though they have no illusions that the band went into decline after their first four albums, though their final album Adios Amigos (which includes a cover of Tom Waits’s “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”) is a return to form and a fitting farewell. Baker and Murray frequently go off at tangents but in an entertaining way. Murray has already proved himself with his DVD commentary on Jimi Hendrix in Criterion’s Monterey Pop set, so let’s have more from him on appropriate music DVDs.
There follow eight interview snippets removed from the final version of the film. These are with Joey (2:56), Marky (3:35), Johnny (3:21), Richie (3:17), Dee Dee (4:01), Tommy (2:29), Joe Strummer (4:04), Debbie Harry and Chris Stein (6:50) and neighbourhood friend Ritchie Adler (1:56). Apart from Joey’s footage, which is in non-anamorphic 16:9, this is presented in 4:3. Highlights include Joey’s tale of meeting Bruce Springsteen and asking The Boss to write them a song. The result was “Hungry Heart”, which Springsteen thought was so good he kept it for himself. The marital banter between Harry and Stein is funny too.
Further interview footage appears in a deleted scene, in which Blondie drummer Clem Burke briefly replaced Richie as new drummer Elvis Ramone. He didn’t last long, leaving due to his inability to keep up with the band’s already fast tempo. This clip runs 1:32. More footage makes up the next item, a featurette (4:16) where Tommy lists who wrote what on the first three albums. This will be of interest to hardcore fans, but it’ll be one-watch stuff to anyone else. The extras are completed by the 53-second theatrical trailer and Tartan’s usual trailer reel, this time comprising The Mayor of the Sunset Strip, Milwaukee, Minnesota, Coffee and Cigarettes, Super Size Me and 2046. The cover slick refers to film notes which aren't on the disc. They may well be included on a four-page booklet as they are with other recent Tartans, but this was not sent to me with the checkdisc.
End of the Century is a worthy, affectionate look at the life and death of one of the most influential American bands of all. If you have any interest in The Ramones or the music they spawned, then you’ll want to check this DVD out, which gets a good presentation from Tartan.