Too Tough to Die: A Tribute to Johnny Ramone

Too Tough to Die - A Tribute to Johnny RamoneSynopsis: On September 12th 2004, just two and a half days before Johnny Ramone’s death, a group of musicians and friends staged a benefit concert in Los Angeles to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Ramones’ first performance and raise money for cancer research. That unforgettable night – along with Johnny’s subsequent memorial service – is captured in this combination concert film and Johnny Ramone tribute documentary featuring interviews with and performances by Red Hot Chili Peppers, Eddie Vedder, Rob Zombie, Deborah Harry, The Dickies, X, Henry Rollins, Pete Yorn, Lisa Marie Presley, Dicky Barrett, Joan Jett, Steve Jones of The Sex Pistols, Thurston Moore, Tim Armstrong of Rancid, Tommy, Marky & C.J. Ramone, and many more.

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Too Tough to Die: A Tribute to Johnny Ramone 7.25

eyelights: the tributes to Johnny Ramone by other music legends.
eyesores: the confusing film title. the abridged performances.

“At the concert when the band comes on
I am in the ring where I belong
On my last leg just gettin’ by
Halo round my head, too tough to die”

‘Too Tough to Die’ is a confusing DVD. Marketed as a tribute to Johnny Ramone, it actually focuses on the 30th anniversary Ramones Tribute concert performed by the remaining Ramones and their friends at Avalon Hollywood in Los Angeles, on September 12, 2004.

Further to that, the film begins as a sort of tribute to the Ramones, with many of their peers and celebrity friends commenting on their origins and their impact, but ends with a tribute to Johnny Ramone, who passed away two and a half days after the tribute concert.

In the middle of this, is the concert. Or excerpts of it, really, given that not all the performances were shown in their entirety – sometimes the participants are talking over the performances. And, presumably, some set lists were trimmed for inclusion in the film.

I had no idea what to make of this DVD when I first saw it in stores, years ago. I thought it was a documentary on Johnny Ramone, but when I’d read the back it mostly referred to the Tribute concert. I wanted more on Johnny, but I wasn’t sure I wanted the concert.

After all, what’s a Ramones concert without all of the Ramones?

I spent a long time see-sawing between buying it and putting it back on the shelf. It took months before I finally gave in, and only because the Ramones fan in me couldn’t ignore it. But I must admit that the confusing packaging was a huge deterrent for me – and perhaps for others.

What makes it appealing is the caliber and number of the participants involved. Naturally, all the remaining Ramones are interviewed, as are Johnny’s widow and Joey’s brother, and the many behind-the-scenes players and collaborators they’ve have over the years.

But what’s exciting are that many of Johnny’s musician friends, such as Dicky Barrett, Blondie, The Dickies, Steve Jones, Lisa Marie Presley, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Henry Rollins, Sonic Youth, Eddie Vedder and Pete Yorn, also were extensively interviewed and paid tribute to the band.

While most of the commentary was conventional and/or familiar, I think my favourite bit of them all was Rollins’ description of his first Ramones show as “a gauntlet of fists” – that is was “utilitarian”, with no banter, breaks, nothing. Yes, that very much sums them up I’d say.

I’m no great fan of Rollins, but he stood out even in this incredibly (accomplished) company: he was articulate, confident and intense. Even his live performance, at the tail end of the show, was by far the best of the lot. It was high energy and the crowd went absolutely bonkers for it.

The others (The Dickies, X, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Marky/CJ/Daniel Del Rey with Pete Yorn, Dicky Barrett, Tim Armstrong, Eddie Vedder and Steve Jones) however, were really a mixed bag. The Ramones’ music may appear “simplistic”, but for all their spirited efforts no one else got it right.

They’re just not the Ramones.

The most astonishing shift for me were the vocals. Although the guitar was noticeably weak compared to Johnny’s playing, Joey’s absence gutted the songs. It’s by watching this show that I finally understood what people had been saying about Joey’s gift: he had a quality and style that is unmatched.

Speaking of the Ramones, Tommy didn’t perform, but he did read a two-page tribute to the band members to the crowd. Johnny couldn’t be there, so MC Rob Zombie read a note from him. He then got the crowd to shout out “Hey Ho” in unison so that the guitarist could hear it through his cel phone.

Johnny was the organizer of the concert. Although he was deathly ill from prostate cancer at the time, he was apparently involved in every aspect of it. He was far too ill to be present, however, and two days later had passed away. Everyone who knew him are convinced that he was holding on just for this.

The documentary ends with a news bit about Johnny’s death, some final tributes and excerpts of the funeral and eulogies from Tommy, Nicholas Cage (Really? What’s the connection?), Eddie Vedder, John Frusciante, and Rob Zombie. There were also some touching final words by C.J. Wow.

The band is then sent off with a rapid-fire montage of Ramones concert performances and TV appearances, as well as clips/soundbytes of each Ramone (Johnny fittingly gets the last word in). Extra performances by Joan Jett (who totally rocks!) with C.J., and then Josh Homme, pump up the credits.

Although ‘Too Tough to Die’ peaks at the end, it still left me feeling unsatisfied; its intentions are totally confused:

  • If it’s a tribute to the Ramones, if fails by not really exploring the Ramones in any substantial way (which, admittedly, has already been done reasonably well in ‘End of the Century‘). There are tons of tributes and lots of fawning, though.
  • If it’s a tribute to Johnny Ramone, as the title suggests, it fails by not exploring his life whatsoever. Granted, it pays tribute to him to some degree at the end, but it’s hardly enough to suggest that this is the crux of the matter. It was more of an afterthought.
  • If its focus is the concert, then why doesn’t it actually show how the concert was put together? We keep hearing that Johnny was involved the whole way, but it’s recounted after the fact, once the deal is done. It’s not much of a “making of”.
  • And, finally, if it’s supposed to highlight the concert itself, then why just show snippets of it? Why not make the whole show available? At the very least, it could have been made available on a separate disc or in the extras (of which there are too few).

But ‘Too Tough to Die’ does none of these things. Or, one might counter-argue, it tries to do all of them at once. The result is a picture that is scattered tonally, that doesn’t really know what it wants to be and, consequently, doesn’t deliver. This leaves viewers wishing for more.

And there isn’t more. The Ramones are gone. Forever.

R.I.P.

Date of viewing: July 13, 2015

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