Tuesday, November 4, 2014

DVD Review: Looking for Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2014
Images from the Internet

Looking for Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders
Written and directed by Danny Garcia
Jungle Records
Chip Baker Films
98 minutes, 2014

A week before his first album was released, I became embroiled in an argument with Tom Petty over the use of the name “The Heartbreakers.” He insisted that he checked the New York band out and they weren’t going anywhere, and no one would care. Petty was both right and wrong. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers out sold Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers probably a million to one. But I have never seen a Tom Petty bootleg; there are hundreds of Johnny Thunders. I have never heard a guitarist say, “Man, I heard Petty play, and just wanted to form a band.” You would be hard pressed to find a guitarist these days who would not call Thunders’ an influence. How does one judge success?

For me, I saw Petty play twice (CBGBs and the Bottom Line). The Heartbreakers out of New York, in various forms, is probably the band I have seen more than anyone else (even more than the Ramones!). Most of the time it was at Max’s, and usually with Nancy Foster / Suzie Q / Nancy New Age / Nancy Neon (among her many handles), my musical sister if ever I had one, across the table.

Most of the shows Thunders was on fire (as was the rest of the band, but this film is about Johnny, so I’ll stick with him as the focus for now), flowing from song to song without stopping between, roaming the stage and spitting glances. Honestly, I’ve also seen some terrible shows; one that comes to mind is an Irving Plaza gig where he was so out of it that he couldn’t find the direction of the audience and had to be shown by underrated bandmate Walter Lure (the last surviving Heartbreakers member) which direction to face. Johnny couldn’t work his hands until a band member gave him something up his nose while on stage, and then he could either strum or finger the chords on his guitar, but not both. I saw more than one person in the audience literally cry that night.

The memorial for him in 1992 in New York was a blast. It was a gala affair with the likes of Lenny Kaye, Cheetah Chrome, Spacely, David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain, and many other New York crème de la crème of the scene on stage and in attendance. I still have the tee-shirt from that night.

Today, the born in 1986 son of a good friend is a huge Thunders fan, and for him Johnny was the model of how to play. It doesn’t matter that there are those that are reviled by his questionable usage behavior or some of his off-stage antics. He was an on-stage role model, and that is why, in my opinion, that he has such a multitude of fans, both from the day and even now years after his controversial New Orleans demise in 1991.

At the halfway point of the film, we’ve met many of the main characters in both flashback and talking heads mode. There’s Actress, the New York Dolls and both versions of the Heartbreakers (Richard Hell and after, when they were at their “height”). Lots of notables who were around the scene at the time, and I kept thinking, damn, I’m glad they made this when they did. So many had already left this earth, including Billy Mercia (1971), Jerry Nolan (1992; last time I saw him play was at the Thunders memorial that same year), Arthur “Killer” Kane (2004; there is a great documentary about him as well, New York Doll), and Malcolm McLaren (2010; who is heard in voice interviews); and just as notable, too many died after being filmed for it, such as the great Billy Rath (2014), Marty Thau (2014) and ever lovable photographer and Heartbreakers’ manager Leee Black Childers (2014).

It is also noteworthy to see who doesn’t appear, such as David Johansen, Max Blatt, his kids, Richard Hell, and Patti Palladin.

But now let’s focus more on what the film has rather than lacks: the likes of musicians Lenny Kaye, Walter Lure (amusingly looking his most corporate and sounding his least deprecating; not meant as any kind of insult), Andy Shernoff (nee Adny) of the Dictators (other members of this also great group despised Thunders), Cynthia Ross (of the underrated B-Girls, and girlfriend of Stiv Bators), Bob Gruen (photographer who has some of the most biting and insightful comments about Thunders’ drug use) and other musicians who have played and worked with him across the globe.

Essentially this is a standard biography, chronologically following a musicians life, but Thunders loomed so large in the New York music scene, that he oozes out of every frame, making this his own in the same way he shared the stage with incredible musicians, such as Lure and the MC5’s Wayne Kramer, and each one of those groups are known as “Johnny Thunders and…” or “Johnny Thunders in…” He led an amazingly charmed albeit drug-addled career. The stories weaved by these (and other) musicians, friends and relatives are fascinating, and that’s what is the center focus of the tale.

While I enjoyed the first half of the film, it is at the center that it really starts to pick up for me. I mean, there are so many books and films about the Dolls that bleed into the Heartbreakers that I sat there enjoying the story, but it felt more like, “And…?” But after the break-up of the Heartbreakers, well, for me that’s where it becomes new and exciting; more films and interviews that I’ve never seen, including during his residency in Sweden, France and Germany.

At first I was annoyed that there was little mention about what a dick Thunders could be (Howie Pyro, who is interviewed here, has a great story in the deleted scenes about how he met Johnny), especially about money, but that is covered in this second part. Being the non-drug user I am, I was nervous about hanging around him and never did, but I loved being in the audience when he played, even the odd gigs like Girls Nite Out at the Ritz, or the Save PIX benefit at Irving Plaza.

The film touches on the mysteries surrounding his death, but thankfully doesn’t belabor it, because Thunders’ importance is music first, and then possibly fashion, and solid personality. There are no definitive answers about the circumstances around his demise, so the focus on his life feels more important. What made him tick, you might say, not what made him stop. I would rather hear about his short film career than what happened in New Orleans. That, it seems, should be a different film for another time.

In all, this is a loving but honest film about a troubled musician’s life, seen through the eyes of his friends, videos, performances, and conversations with the man, himself. If one were to look at just three albums from each phase of his life, the Dolls’ first release, The Heartbreakers’ L.A.M.F., and the solo So Alone, one could stop and be satisfied, but there is so much more.

I remember standing in the kitchen of Boston musician and publicist Joe Viglione in the first half of the 1980s, and talking to music producing legend Jimmy Miller (a Brooklyn boy, FYI) about working with Thunders for the French label, Red Rose Records. I could have asked him about the Stones, but Thunders was my interest. That says a lot.

The extras are pretty good from end to end. They include a Behind the Scenes, which is mostly a radio interview with the director on a New Orleans radio station mixed with some deleted scenes, which is about 9 minutes long. This shouldn’t be confused with the actual 20-minute Deleted Scenes, all of which is interviews that didn’t make the final cut, but which are all interesting and worth a view. There are two live songs including the Heartbreakers doing the Lure classic “All By Myself,” and a bluesy music video by ex-Oddballs (a band he was in with Thunders) Stevie Klasson called, well, “Looking for Johnny.” Along with the trailer, there is a short film about a guitar-maker who designs Thunders-modeled electrics.

This is an excellent documentary, and does really well in placing the importance of Johnny Thunders on an international stage, in a wider expanse than one would normally envision for a kid from Queens. Take that, Tom Petty.


  1. Excellent documentary, though I don't know why I was left out of it.

    1. Agreed. And I would have happily contributed pix but wasn't asked either. 8-)