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Punks, Meet Your Makers

The Ramones at End of the Century; Ridgeway Videos

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Anyone even remotely interested in the state of rock & roll during the past 30 years should see End of the Century, the riveting documentary about The Ramones by filmmakers Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields. It's a loving, propulsive, and ultimately moving look at the career and lives of the most influential rock band that never struck commercial gold. Filled with previously unseen live footage and extensive interviews with the band members, friends, cohorts and family, the film is a fascinating barrage of information and images that often mirrors the band's breakneck performances. In the end, the film's probing into the inner workings of the band and the members' personalities raise End of the Century well above the normal rock documentary. In 1975, a foursome of blue-collar kids from Queens who were tired of rock's drift toward mellow hippiedom ("Everything was Earth Shoes, brown, muted tones," says bassist Dee Dee Ramone) debuted a tight, jackhammer style of guitar rock before sparse audiences in New York's CBGB's club. No one had heard anything like it. They had taken the hard pop edge of the New York Dolls and Alice Cooper, stripped it down, jacked it up to double-speed, added ingeniously simple and snarky lyrics ("They're piling in the back seat / They're generating steam heat/ Pulsating to the backbeat/ The Blitzkrieg Bop.") and presented it with a live, visceral force that was unprecedented. Their visual impact was just as powerful in '75: all four members wore torn jeans, black leather jackets and bowl haircuts. On top of that, they all took the stage name "Ramone." What was with these guys?

They developed a rabid following in the New York area, gigs became SRO, they got a low rent record deal, and that's where it stayed for a long time. "We still couldn't get gigs in New Jersey," as drummer Tommy Ramone tells it. Tension within the group grew.

Meantime, however, rockers in England fell in love with the first album and a subsequent Ramones tour there turned Britain's rock scene upside down. Joe Strummer of the Clash eloquently explains the enormous effect the Ramones had in the UK, essentially jump-starting hundreds of young bands and the entire British punk rock movement.

US media cluelessness (and Sex Pistols manager Malcolm Maclaren's PR savvy) dictated that punk would be portrayed as a strictly Brit phenomenon, never mind that the Ramones had started the whole thing. The band grew more frustrated, but at least the gigs got bigger and their fan base exploded. Surely the big time was just around the corner.

The big time never came, though. The band kept up a grinding touring schedule for years and years, and tried a number of different approaches to recording their albums in an attempt to "break out." At one point, they even let the notorious control freak Phil Spector take a shot at producing, which turned into a disaster that even further alienated the members from one another.

It's the filmmakers' portrayal of that personal side of the Ramones story — the fights and trials and dysfunction within a band that had seemed like a well-oiled machine — that gives End of the Century its lasting power.

Before the film was released, few people knew that lead singer Joey and guitarist/bandleader Johnny, already at odds politically, didn't speak to each other for the last decade of Joey's life because of a dispute over a woman; or that bassist Dee Dee was a former male prostitute and part-time junkie; or that Johnny was a veritable drill sergeant whose unpleasant personality and vicious rants were, finally, what held the band together. Or that Joey, the six-foot-six ugly geek with one of the greatest rock voices ever, was nearly crippled by Obsessive Compulsive Disorder but through near-heroic willpower created a persona he could escape into and function within. Note that the front line members of the band — Johnny, Joey, and Dee Dee — are dead now, one tip-off to how important the band's very existence was to their stability and well-being.

The Ramones were directly or indirectly responsible for a rebirth of rock & roll's initial raw energy, inspiring thousands of bands over three decades, and becoming genuine musical legends. The band's induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, as shown in End of the Century, is quite moving. Joey was already dead of cancer, and Dee Dee was nearly incoherent and would be gone in two weeks, but the Ramones had finally — finally — hit the big time.

By John Grooms

Filming 14 Holidays In Dirt

For a natural storyteller and narrative songwriting wizard like Stan Ridgeway, the idea to put to film each of the songs that comprise his 2002 odds and ends collection, Holiday In Dirt, sounds like a can't miss proposition, especially when the 14 different auteurs - one for each song - could practically comprise a Best Of list of music video and art film directors. (Ridgeway gave the directors full creative freedom but limited their budgets to $500.) But as entertaining as some of these short films are, collectively they prove what watchers of early MTV figured out almost immediately: a little music video goes a long, long way. Still, Ridgeway would seem like the perfect candidate for a project like this; his songs are more often than not noir-ish narratives, peopled with eccentrics, ex-cons, down-and-outers, paranoiacs and other assorted outcasts. But there is a clammy foreboding in his music, no matter how goofy the lyrics or over-the-top the synthesizers, and with Ridgeway's adenoidal voice it's easy to succumb to aural claustrophobia.

Despite Ridgeway's rather direct narrative style, most of the filmmakers opt for the traditional "mood" feel of many music videos, eschewing storylines. Some of the films capture that Ridgeway essence (or successfully play it as a foil) better than others. Rick Fuller (Paul Westerberg, Wilco videos) certainly does for the record's best song, the opener, "Beloved Movie Star," a bittersweet look (shot all on Hi-8) down the Hollywood Walk of Fame and out to the ocean at Malibu. Other highlights include Herman Barangan's film for "Garage Band '69," where the protagonist's faces have been eerily smeared out (now that's making good use of the $500), Rudi Tuzla's WWI recreation for the anti-war polemic "After the Storm," and Steve Hanft's film for "Bing Can't Walk," the one film that actually feels like a $500 movie.

There's nothing essential here for either casual music or film fans, but Ridgeway enthusiasts and cineasts will find much more worth their while. Taken as a whole, though, the DVD shares the same fate of Ridgeway's 2002 record: A random collection in search of a unifying theme.

By John Schacht

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