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A region 2 DVD review of END OF THE CENTURY: THE STORY OF THE RAMONES by Slarek
 

Music, rock music especially, not only defines each new generation, it ultimately becomes owned by it. It's something the youth of the time have that links them to their peers and distances them from their parents, who are just unable to understand or connect with it. Or at least that's the theory. As someone who embraces change and the shock of the new, I've yet to reach that point where I spout the phrase that defines me as an oldie, "It's just not music, is it," and yet I still have a strong affection for the songs that helped shape my own youth. Given the preceding argument, I'm always somewhat surprised, and more than a little pleased, when younger friends discover this music for themselves and celebrate it. There's an ego thing at work here, of course, as those who own the music of now acknowledge – and by association validate – my own musical taste, in the process creating common ground in an area that is notoriously divisive.

Two years ago a friend half my age announced that he'd discovered this amazing group that none of his younger friends seemed to have heard of and wondered if I was aware of them. I most definitely was. The band in question was The Ramones, and having listened to their music my friend could not for the life of him understand why they were not up there with the greats and why their early albums were impossible to find on CD. Ah, therein lies a story...

Clearing up this mystery is one of the tasks the documentary End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones sets itself. The Ramones, for those who do not know, were innovators, kicking against the bland pop and ten-minute guitar and keyboard solos of their mainstream contemporaries with their short tracks, simple but punchy lyrics, belting pace and aggressive guitar work, which proved one of the key inspirations for the punk rock movement that was shortly to explode. But despite the high regard in which they were held by the British musical press and the likes of The Clash and The Sex Pistols, mainstream success and widespread recognition eluded the band throughout their career. They were, in the words of rock journalist Charles Shaar Murray (see the extra features below), "the right group in the wrong dimension." As the story unfolds it becomes clear that this was partly a matter of location – while they were able to fill sizeable venues in the UK, back home in New York they were still working small clubs to a cult audience. The irony is that, having kick-started the punk rock movement, the group found themselves damned by association with it. Just as their song Sheena is a Punk Rocker looked set to become a hit, press stories began appearing linking the very word 'punk' with everything middle America regarded as rotten about rock music in general and the record effectively disappeared from the airwaves. Their story boasts several such examples of bad luck or timing, all of which conspired to deny the group the mainstream success for which they were searching.

Even for fans of The Ramones and their music, End of the Century has is share of surprises, chief amongst them being the diversity of political opinion in the group (singer Joey would speak at protest rallies, much to the chagrin of lead guitarist Johnny, a lifelong Republican who pays public tribute to George Bush at the film's end) and the level of control Johnny exercised over the others. He ran the show like a drill sergeant in charge of his troops, in the process casting himself as gruff and unfriendly, especially in comparison to enigmatic Joey and cheery, drug-addicted Dee-Dee. If the film is any evidence then he did little to alter this self-image over the years, his interviews here showcasing him as humourless and dourly matter-of-fact, though it's hard not to warm to someone who said of legendary producer Phil Spector, "So he had a few hits in the sixties, what has he done lately?" With Joey hidden behind the long hair and dark classes of his stage persona, it's left to Dee Dee to provide the entertainment value, even if his past (and, as it turns out, more recent) addictions have left him not the sharpest twig on the tree.

Something like four years in the making, the film's structure is a little ramshackle in places. Interviews have been conducted on what looks like a variety of media and some of them have been broken up by time and location, signified by clothing changes, the coming and going of sunglasses and some stark shifts in picture quality, sometimes from shot to shot. Little information is supplied on the personal lives of the group or the process of creating the music for which they were known, and the story itself, a series of disappointments, luckless decisions and anticlimaxes, inevitably lacks that triumphant, breakthrough moment that rise-to-fame tales trade on. Even their long overdue entry to the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame came too late for Joey, who by then had died of cancer, soon to be followed by Dee Dee (heroin overdose) and Johnny (also cancer).

All of which highlights a downside of rock 'n' roll longevity and reaching an age where your musical heroes start dying on you, sometimes at a ludicrously young age. I mean, Johnny Ramone was 55, for fuck's sake, Joey just 49. What age is that for anyone, rock icon or otherwise, to die? It almost makes it worse that both were from 'natural causes', not drug or booze related, which at least you could blame on the man and the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. In that context, at least Dee Dee's passing makes some sort of twisted sense.

But for Ramones fans the film's flaws are largely forgivable and its technical scruffiness almost appropriate to the subject matter, and there's a real prize in the shape of the archive footage of the band in performance, including some very early stuff at CBGB's, the New York club at which they first made their name. Seeing and hearing them in full flow, an explosion of vibrant musical energy, serves as a timely reminder of their talent, their influence, and their crucial role in the development of rock 'n' roll. Gabba Gabba Hey!

packaging

OK, I rarely comment on this aspect of a DVD (I bought it to watch the film not look at the case), but every now and then I pull an ordered DVD out of its jiffy bag and let forth a small, schoolgirl-like squeal of delight. OK, this is not up there with the region 1 editions of Memento or Se7en, but is still nicely enough done to make me suspect that there are some Ramones fans working in Tartan's art department. Packaged in the usual snap case, this is housed in a cardboard sleeve with a leather jacket look and a zipper design where the box halves separate. Additionally, attached to the included booklet, are two Ramones badges, neither of which I have chosen to pin on the leather biker's jacket I don't actually own.

sound and vision

Ooo, this is a hard one to easily judge. As mentioned above, End of the Century has been constructed from material shot on and sourced from a wide variety of media, ranging from what appears to be high-end video for a couple of the interviews to fuzzy sub-VHS black-and-white for the early performance footage. The tell-tale signs of DV are evident in interviews where video noise and highlight burn-out are very visible, and some of the graphics betray their desktop video origins. If the high-end DV and photos are anything to go by, this is about as decent a transfer as you're going to find – contrast, colour and (where possible) detail are fine, and though there are some compression artefacts they are largely restricted to the grubbier source material and interview shot low-band. The box says the picture is anamorphic 1.85:1, but in truth it tends to vary a little, depending on the material, but this won't be noticeable on CRT TVs. Some of the more aggressive framing suggests a project started with 4:3 as the original intended aspect ratio.

There are three soundtracks, Dolby stereo 2.0, surround 5.1 and DTS 5.1. The 5.1 and DTS tracks inevitably have greater punch and finesse and are more inclusive than the stereo track, but there's little to choose between these two. OK, the DTS track JUST has the edge. Just. But then I like my Ramones LOUD. The sourced music sounds great throughout.

extra features

First we have a series of 9 short interviews with the main participants, essentially footage not used in the film, none more than 7 minutes in length but all of real interest, especially the radio studio one with Joey, who is a little more relaxed here than in the in-film interviews. All except Joey's are framed 4:3, and the inclusion of part of the big-close-up interview with Johnny does tend to confirm my earlier suspicions about the original intended aspect ratio.

Next up is a commentary track by Charles Shaar Murray and Danny Baker. Now some younger readers may be doing a double-take there – Danny Baker, that cheery but sometimes annoying bloke who DJ's on BBC Radio London? The very same. But once upon a time Mr. Baker was at the cutting edge of music journalism, writing with Murray for the NME under the banner of The News Brothers, having begun his career with the influential punk magazine Sniffin' Glue. I was a little apprehensive about this commentary, but within minutes I was hooked. Both Murray and Baker remain huge fans of the band and the commentary is loaded with anecdotes of their early exposure to them (via the CBGB's appearances and bootleg records), also throwing in an amusing story about Sid Vicious demanding money and suffering the consequences. They react directly to much of the on-screen activity, groaning at the extracts from Rock 'n' Roll High School and casting doubt on the authenticity of some of the rock fables. Baker had clearly seen the film before recording the commentary, whereas this seems to be Murray's first exposure to it. There appear to have been a couple of censorous cuts made here, the most obvious one signified when Baker says, "Can I just say this. By all means you can edit this out..." followed by three minutes of silence, and these two rarely pause for a second. Otherwise, this is an enormously entertaining and informative listen and a fine companion to the film.

Deleted scene (Clem Burke as Elvis Ramone) (1:32) contains only about 1 minute of deleted footage, and is focussed around the BCU interview with Johnny. It's framed 4:3.

Who Wrote What on the First Three Albums (4:18) is effectively another deleted scene in which Tommy Ramone outlines...well, can you guess? It does help to clarify an area only touched on in the film proper.

The Original Theatrical Trailer (0:53) is non-anamorphic 16:9 and a pretty good sell.

The included booklet contains a nicely scribed appreciation of the band titled We Are All Ramones! by Pierre Perrone.

I don't count Tartan's usual trailer reel as an extra, but I do the two aforementioned badges. I just need that jacket now.

summary

Well it's been a long time coming but it's nice to see the Ramones getting the sort of cinematic appreciation often reserved for those who have made the financial big time, a status that repeatedly alluded a band that for many of us were always better than the rock dinosaurs they energetically reacted against. If the film is a little rough around the edges then it's still welcome, and Tartan have showcased it well, or as well as the sorce imagery will allow. As Charles Shaar Murray suggests at the end of the commentary: "Now go play some Ramones records!"

End of the Century: The Story of The Ramones

USA 2003
108 mins
directors
Jim Fields
Michael Gramaglia

DVD details
region 2
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby stereo 2.0
Dolby surround 5.1
DTS 5.1
languages
English
subtitles
none
extras
Danny Baker and Charles Shaar Murray commentary
Interviews
Deleted scene
Who wrote what? featurette
Trailer
Booklet
Badges
distributor
Tartan
release date .
Out now
review posted
5 October 2005

See all of Slarek's reviews