I would contend that the first three Ramones records are among the best ever recorded, not just because they were the rough prototypes for an entire genre of music, but because they represent an incredible, energizing and explosive music that few can match, even after almost thirty years. Few would disagree with that assertion that the Ramones were the first punk band. The way they deconstructed rock'n'roll down to its constituent parts and rebuilt it was in part a stroke of genius, and in part the fact that none of them could really play their instruments. Hell, you could make the case that the Ramones achieved greatness because no one ever taught them what they were supposed to do. And despite the fact that they never really achieved popular success, it is doubtless that most of the bands that we talk about these days were influenced by them, directly or indirectly.
Many of us weren't even born when the band made their recorded debut in 1976, and fewer still know the entire backstory of the band. Even as a longtime fan, End Of The Century reveals that much of what you pieced together from interviews and videos couldn't be further from the truth. Most of us knew the basic composition of the band; Joey was the romantic, Dee Dee the drugged out savant, Johnny the control-freak Republican. I knew about the years of conflict, but how bitter and divisive the dysfunction turned out to be was both saddening and mesmerizing.
While these archetypes were partly accurate, the reason that End Of The Century is such a great documentary is that it both reinforces and shatters those images. Joey was a romantic, certainly, but he was also a shy, awkward and helplessly compulsive introvert with a childlike view of romance. Dee Dee represented the filth and fury of the band, hopelessly addicted to an endless succession of narcotics and women and not entirely like his fictionalized protagonist in “53rd & 3rd.” Johnny's conservatism was complicated, the knee-jerk reaction of a recovering rebel, constantly disguising his delinquent past with support for an endless succession of punk rock villains like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
Like the excellent Westway To The World, the film is organized chronologically, beginning with the interest that brought them together (the Stooges) to their induction into the hall of fame. But the film takes pains to carefully highlight each of those singular moments which helped formulate the band and what both united and repelled its members. More importantly, over the hours of the film, it becomes clear that the creative brilliance of the Ramones came from the constant battle between these personalities, not some collaborative process. The film implies that Dee Dee was a great songwriter because he was so fucked up, not despite it. Joey was only able to overcome his shyness by standing in front of a huge crowd and opening up. The Ramones only managed to keep producing rebellious music because their resident Republican “overlord” refused to let them stop.
The film takes the time to examine the personalities behind the band, but never ends up like an episode of Behind The Music, instead an unparalleled compendium of concert footage is interspersed between each vignette. The contrast of music to the increasingly dark personal segments is emotionally exciting and draining. On top of that, testimonials from individuals inspired by the band is also sprinkled through the film. Joe Strummer speaks passionately about the influence of that first Ramones show in the UK, and it becomes completely obvious how important the Ramones were to the development of the Clash, the Damned, the Sex Pistols and other bands who are often mentioned in the same breath.
End Of A Century is also generous with footage of other relevant bands and performers. A particularly horrific clip of Emerson, Lake And Palmer from Pictures at an Exhibition demonstrates exactly what the Ramones were “fighting.” Also included are short interviews with Captain Sensible and Glenn Matlock as well as modern musicians like Rob Zombie and Kirk Hammett. The film takes pains to show the story from all perspectives and has an extrordinary level of access to a wealth of influential people.
The documentary is also intent on providing as complete a history as is possible. Even mentioned is Dee Dee's embarassing attempt at “rap” music, complete with a fairly laughable video clip. On top of the substantial material in the film itself, the DVD includes extras featuring the entirety of interviews that were edited into the film. One particularly enjoyable example was the interview with Joe Strummer, which shows that the mighty Clash member was more than just a great musician, but also a true lover of music with the Ramones standing above all.
The makers of End Of A Century should be commended for their attention to detail, and their clear and unflinching love for these incredible, flawed geniuses, and any fan of the Ramones or punk rock in general could easily find themselves enthralled by the film.