The most vivid figure in Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields' End of the Century was the least articulate and most archetypal of the Ramones: Johnny, the right-wing prole whose hard-ass sense of style the others nutballed and softened and accelerated and above all imitated. We felt we knew Joey the singer, Dee Dee the hophead, Tommy the conceptualizer. Taciturn Johnny was far less distinct, whether beating out his chords or glowering at assholes. But throughout this thorough, moving, long-awaited documentary, he talks more than Legs McNeil himself, in an accent outlanders will oversimplify as New York and connoisseurs of Queens English will pin down as Ridgewood or Middle Village. It's an accent steeped in working-class repression—the accent of white men who think being in touch with your feelings is for fags.
In exchanges that had me cackling and wincing at the same time, Johnny makes clear that he's no fag—when he finds himself "caring" after Joey dies, he's so bewildered that he examines himself for "weakness." Granted, the two barely spoke once Johnny became the KKK who stole Joey's baby away—and then made an honest woman of her in a union that's lasted decades. But for a third of Joey's foreshortened lifetime, they remained Ramones anyway, through five years of Marky rehab followed by seven of eager CJ replacing the one and only Dee Dee. Johnny and Dee Dee defined the Ramones, and Joey and Tommy interpreted them. But Johnny and Joey kept them going start to finish. While they were never again as primal or superb as on the four albums they sped through between 1976 and 1978, they recorded loads of fine music thereafter—much of which Johnny hated, but gabba gabba hey. No matter how pissed-off he was, he never let up on the downstrum. Exciting and absolutely right though their '70s sets always were, the film establishes they kept the faith alive till the end, lifted by Joey's goofy dedication and powered by the chords Johnny thrashed out like they were why he was alive. As unyielding in his aesthetic principles as he was in everything else, this reactionary was an avant-gardist in spite of himself.
"Opposites attract and all that crap," shrugs Joey, who emerges as somewhat vaguer and more distant than we who loved him from a distance believed. Maybe this is unfair to a shy compulsive who was mortally ill when shooting began; certainly it's sick that only Tommy mentioned him at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction where Johnny shouted out to George W. Bush. Then again, only Marky gives props to Tommy, whose world-changing beat is dismissed separately by the three other original members. For four guys who pretended they were all the same, they sure had their differences. And for four guys who got famous acting stoopid, they sure are intelligent. Although he's aged badly and will soon OD, Dee Dee's down-to-earth off-the-wall partakes of the same charm he radiates in the many welcome and miraculous archival clips. But Johnny's analysis and will carry the film. Of course they didn't get along—they were a rock group. And Johnny understands with surpassing clarity that a rock group is infinitely bigger than its members—a work of art requiring species of creativity and endurance geniuses operating alone can barely fathom.
End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones was directed and produced by Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields. Now playing at AMC at the Block, Orange.