The Ramones have been commodified (shilling Bud Light with "Blitzkrieg Bop"), deified, even gentrified (on the soundtrack to The Royal Tenenbaums, where "Judy Is a Punk" thrashes for dear life alongside Vince Guaraldi), but seldom have they been so thoroughly analyzed. There have been the myriad box sets and re-releases -- Rhino seems to have one every other annum, with running order varied and bonus tracks added -- and all have their accompanying essays lovingly scribbled by adoring acolytes. Punk magazine's Legs McNeil's and Gillian McCain's Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk devotes a good hunk of its rambling text to the band, and a handful of books chronicle its misadventures and misfortunes with slavish attention to detail. When the story's this good -- meaning it goes that bad for the boys even during the best of times -- it's hard to screw up the screw-ups.
Michael Gramaglia's and Jim Fields' rock doc End of the Century adds to that body of work some astonishing audio and video, including scenes of the band's initial gigs at CBGB's and the Roundhouse in England, and rambling Dee Dee Ramone monologues that sound as though they're being squeezed through a syringe. What the books suggest, the movie reveals and revels in -- the songs, in other words, those brilliant, back-breakingly fast anthems. The movie actually plays like pretty standard made-for-VH1 fare, but it's also a history about the twin mysteries of how two guys who hated each other (the no-shit Johnny and the no-chin Joey) stayed in a band for more than two decades and how the Ramones managed to influence a million kids to start 250,000 bands without ever having a hit. It's got all the usual stuff and all the usual suspects: a bassist on junk (Dee Dee), the woman who came between guitarist Johnny and singer Joey, the important drummer callously treated like an afterthought (Tommy), the nobodies who became bigger somebodies than their role models (members of the Clash and the Sex Pistols), and the managers and hangers-on and enablers who stayed in orbit awaiting the blast-off that never quite came.
It's like Some Kind of Monster, the Metallica doc, without benefit of high-priced therapy providing some kind of happy ending. The band was born in Queens in 1974, out of the echoes of the Stooges and the New York Dolls, and died in Hollywood in 1996, with Dee Dee already long gone to a crap rap career that failed before it started. The film gives us plenty of reasons why these guys got together ("Opposites attract and all that crap," says Joey, already nearing death when the movie was commenced in 1998) and stayed together (Johnny knew you didn't have to talk to a guy to rock with a guy). And it suggests that even though these dudes weren't the best fit in the world -- Dee Dee liked his smack and would have made a better Heartbreaker; Johnny was a disciplinarian more concerned with his baseball-card collection -- they still needed each other. Without the Ramones, Joey, with his bad hair and bad eyes and bad teeth and bad skin, would have slunk into oblivion with his collection of '50s rock records; with the Ramones, the nerd became a dangerous god who scared hell out of even Johnny Rotten.
For a while, the movie surges toward the promised land: It builds, with tension and humor and sloppy charm, toward the band's formation and first gigs in the Bowery and the recording of the first album, which would provide the template for every punk band to come months and decades later. Witnesses recall believing they were a gang, in their leather jackets and torn jeans and mop-top hairdos; they remember the barrage of songs and fist of sound. The Ramones were the antidote to the yuppie-geek art-rock of the Talking Heads and Television; they were the antithesis of Debbie Harry's downtown beauty queen. They were ugly guys making beautiful noise -- Chuck Berry 45s played at 78 rpm, turned up to 100 on amps that would only go to 6.
The band's influence and omnipresence has skewed our perception of its history and existence, most of which was spent chasing the hit record that never came; recounted are tales of being held hostage by producer Phil Spector (a nut, go figure) and working with hacks who sawed the sound in half on records that got increasingly irritating but never wholly irrelevant (save the last, oh, six). The fearsome foursome became, in time, a revolving door for fill-in-the-blank blanks, chief among them drummer Richie Ramone, seen here in a slicked-back suit that makes him look like a yutz. They conquered but never triumphed, and by the time the band went into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, only Tommy thanked the late Joey, and Dee Dee Ramone was weeks away from being OD Ramone. The movie can't have a happy ending, but it rushes toward it anyway, as if to avoid the horrible times by concentrating on the merely lousy times, during which the Ramones made some of the greatest music ever used to sell light beer.