• Looking For Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders

    Released By: MVD Visual
    Released On: October 21, 2014
    Director: Danny Garcia
    Cast: Various
    Year: 2013
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    The Film:

    Whether you love him, hate him, are indifferent to him, or have no damn clue who he is, there's no denying the genius and influence of Mr. Johnny Thunders. From his first well-known start as guitarist in the New York Dolls to his place in rock 'n' roll history as the prime mover in The Heartbreakers, Thunders' influence can be heard throughout decades of popular music, from The Ramones to Teenage Head to Turbonegro. With his 1960 Les Paul TV Junior, he set the tone for every rock guitar player hero to come, raising himself to (at the very least) the level of his idol, Keith Richards.

    But as a result of heavy narcotic use, Johnny always managed to dodge massive success whenever it came knocking, which seems to primarily be the reason he's not more well-known. In an effort to document the man's twisted path through life, Writer/Director Danny Garcia, who told the sad tale of The Rise and Fall of the Clash, has created Looking For Johnny; an unflinching look at the joy and ugliness that surrounded Thunders for his two decade career.

    Starting wisely at the beginning, the film looks at Johnny's early life in Queens, and the absence of a father figure that would leave an emptiness inside of him for the rest of his life. Despite a somewhat broken home life, Johnny seems to find some solace in music, attending weekly shows at the Fillmore East; live performances that introduced him to powerful groups like the MC5 and The Stooges. It was around this time that he was asked to join Actress, who would become The New York Dolls. In a rather telling interview, it is revealed that Johnny was invited to smoke a joint one day at band practice...and showed up the next day with a pound of marijuana, illustrating his "all or nothing" approach to drugs.

    Despite being popular in New York, record companies didn't seem to be interested in the rowdy, drugged-out cross-dressers, and so they went to England; where drummer Billy Murcia promptly died in a drug-related mishap. Desparate to chase the fame they felt was owed to them, they hired drummer Jerry Nolan, who would end up being Johnny's "soul mate" and heroin buddy. Finally getting a shot at the brass ring, the band was signed to Mercury records, but a sub-standard production job by Todd Rundgren, coupled with an album cover that shouted "Homosexuals!" in an era when homosexuality was none too popular stunted sales of the Dolls' first album. A second album fared not much better, and a stint with Malcolm McLaren as manager had a negative effect.

    In dangerous and drug-infested New York City in the mid-70's, Thunders and Nolan split from the Dolls and formed The Heartbreakers with Richard Hell, confirming their status as junkies. Even straight man Walter Lure (brought in after Hell left) got sucked in, and The Heartbreakers became the ultimate junkie band, as illustrated by their first single, "Chinese Rocks". Although the resulting album L.A.M.F is now regarded as a classic, at the time it was looked down upon as a poorly produced record, somehow not enhanced by the cost of pounds of cocaine added to the studio bill. Another brush with success narrowly avoided, Jerry Nolan quit the band and the record label went bankrupt.

    All this and more can be found in the documentary, which continues on to examine Johnny's solo career and his further descent into drugs and possible affliction of leukemia, right up to the conspiracies that surround his death at 38 years old. What makes Looking For Johnny shine as a documentary is that it lays everything out on the table. It doesn't glamourize or turn its nose up at the seedy side of the story, nor does it ignore those moments when Thunders could really turn it on and kick out great performances. It looks at the early days up to the disintegration of The Heartbreakers, and then carries on into Johnny's later years and solo career with an unbiased eye, and relies mainly on the testimony of the people who were actually there. And WHAT an assortment of characters we get; Sylvain Sylvain, Bob Gruen, Walter Lure, Alan Vega and many others tell the story with no apparent censorship, with simultaneous awe and dismay for their fallen friend. Garcia somehow jams in a ton of these interviews, interspersed with live footage and photographs, as well as some pretty nifty film of New York and England in the 1970's into the 98 minute running time, laying out Thunders' history in a manner that is never boring and doesn't overstay its welcome. In the end, it felt a little short; but being that the entire story was told in an intelligent and very thorough manner, I realized that the feeling was just a disappointment that the film was over.


    Looking for Johnny is presented on DVD in an anamorphic 1.78:1 ratio, though the mix of footage does require a change in ratio here and there. Being that some of the film is quite old and probably hasn't been preserved that well, it's expected that there will be some dirt and noise, but that tends to add to the character of it. Vintage live footage comes across very well, photographs used are for the most part clear, and the modern-day interviews are sharp and focused.

    The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is perfectly adequate as well, registering approximately 320Kbps. Interview subjects are clearly audible, and the live footage is mixed in properly, with a good range and little variance from clip to clip. Some of the older footage is obviously less than crystal, but hey, life goes on.

    In the Extras menu of the disc, we get a Behind The Scenes (8:44) that is basically Danny Garcia and Associate Producer Jeff Joseph being interviewed about the film on a New Orleans radio station. This also features some different interview clips, and footage the New Orleans inn where Johnny's body was discovered.

    If you liked the interviews found in the documentary, Deleted Scenes (19:29) features even more deleted and extended content.

    Rock 'N' Roll Relics With Billy Rowe (3:47) is an interesting look at a guitar maker who creates clones of the classics, including Thunders' P-90 equipped Les Paul Junior, which may or may not get the folks at Gibson knocking on his door with a cease-and-desist.

    A full live clip of "All By Myself" is also available, as well as music videos for "Alone in a Crowd" and Stevie Klasson's song, "Looking For Johnny".

    A trailer for the documentary is also available.

    The Final Word:

    Few documentaries on entertainment personalities can be considered simultaneously thorough and entertaining; it's usual to see one sacrificed for the other. Looking For Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders walks that line perfectly. Highly recommended.