Rock Rock, Rock ‘n’ Roll Standoff
New York Times/Arts & Leisure
April 25, 2004
By BILL WERDE
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 fiancee, 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 naÃ¯ve.”
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.”