The Ramones were arguably the greatest rock 'n' roll band of all time. At the very least, the four guys from Queens -- Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy (they all adopted the surname Ramone) -- injected a blast of desperately needed raucousness amid the artsy and easy-listening detritus that so pervaded Seventies-era radio. Sporting black leather jackets, bad haircuts and an all-around thuggish look, the Ramones helped launch the punk movement and its concomitant return to stripped-down, three-chord rock.
Unlike some of the punk outfits that emerged from London and Los Angeles, however, the Ramones were refreshingly pretension-free. Their music was energetic, humorous, self-effacing and (horror of horrors) fun, characterized by such title-says-it-all songs as "I Wanna Be Sedated," "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker" and "Teenage Lobotomy" The group's legacy is commemorated in Too Tough to Die: A Tribute to Johnny Ramone, a Sept. 12, 2004, tribute concert held two days before the Ramones' renowned guitarist died of prostate cancer.
The tribute show, staged at The Avalon in Los Angeles, features big-time talent ranging from Henry Rollins to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder. Interestingly, the documentary Too Tough to Die is almost as much a tribute to the concert itself as it is to the Ramones, with interviewees offering scads of praise to the show's organizers and acts.
So is the concert deserving of such glowing reviews? Well, kinda.
While the intentions of all those involved are undoubtedly admirable, the performances, although generally good, teeter toward the unremarkable. There are several standouts. The best moments include turns by the Dickies, X, Pete Yorn and a typically ferocious set from Rollins. Dicky Barrett and Lawrence Katz of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones team up with ex-Ramones Marky and C.J. for a sizzling take on "My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg)," while Vedder pours his heart into "I Believe in Miracles."
On the disappointing end of things, the Chili Peppers are a bit lumbering in covering a handful of Ramones tracks. Other rockers who take the stage include Joan Jett, Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, Tim Armstrong of Rancid and Brett Gueritz of Bad Religion.
Director Many Stein (whose father, record company exec Seymour Stein, had signed the Ramones to Sire Records) opts for a no-frills approach that intersperses concert footage with interviews and archival photos from the Ramones' late-Seventies heyday. The construction is workmanlike and uninspired. Punk fans will be entertained, but a viewer's appreciation is sure to be tempered by the lackluster camerawork and Stein's vexing decision to interrupt songs with post-show interviews.
Musicians interviewed for the documentary include most of those who performed at the 2004 gig, as well as Debbie Harry, Rob Zombie, Lisa Marie Presley and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore. Other interviewees include Johnny Ramone's widow, Linda; as well as various associates of the Ramones. The doc's final section centers on Johnny Ramone's 2004 memorial service, where speakers included Zombie, Vedder and actor Nicolas Cage.
Only in the film's final moments do we glimpse vintage performance footage of Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy. As the group barrels through "Pinhead" at New York's legendary CBGB's, you can't help wishing that you had just spent the last 77 minutes watching a full-length concert of the real deal itself.
Presented in widescreen 1.78:1 and enhanced for 16x9 television screens, the picture is beset by slight grain and ghosting. The low-budget aesthetic fits with the raw power of the music, but it doesn't exactly do justice to the tremendous talent on stage.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 is serviceable and free from distortion. But, again, a concert movie deserves fuller sound.
Aside from a promo spot, the only extra is commentary with director-producer Mandy Stein; Linda Cummings Ramone (Johnny's widow) and punk rocker Joe Sib. Ramones fans will enjoy the commentary. The three are chatty, chummy and armed with anecdotes.
Too Tough to Die: A Tribute to Johnny Ramone is worth a look for fans of the Ramones and punk, but it falls far short of essential viewing. Gabba Gabba ho-hum.