Well, amigos, I’ve not published a new blog post for about six months. Many apologies to those of you who keenly await my every word with baited breath – you may now exhale! It has been a hectic hectic time – but normal (blogging) service is now resumed. I am very pleased my return to blogging involves a subject close to my heart – the hero of my formative years…Johnny Thunders!
I was overjoyed to be invited to the London screening of this movie docu-biopic on the great ‘JT’ at the Prince Charles cinema in W1 on Thursday 5th June by my friend (and official JT biographer), Nina Antonia. Before posting this promised review, I must once again declare an interest (known to those who know me and regular readers of this blog) – I am a huge Thunders fan; I was there at Johnny’s London gigs in the early 80s, I still play his music daily (both on my iPod and my old guitar) and my ‘fan-dom’ remains undiminished across three decades (and counting). Then again, Johnny clearly had that sort of effect on people – as this movie ably demonstrates.
OK, here’s the review…
“What becomes a legend most?” asked Lou Reed in one of his characteristically introspective tracks. Looking For Johnny is a movie that aims to answer exactly this question in relation to one of rock and roll’s most iconic figures – the legendary Johnny Thunders.
Looking For Johnny was conceived and put together by director (and fellow Thunders fan), Danny Garcia. Garcia painstakingly interviewed the people who knew Johnny best – family, friends, bandmates, former managers (et al) to discover the truth about the man behind the myths (of which there were many). The vox pop reminscences and spoken pen portraits are inter-cut with archive footage (some of it newly unearthed) of Johnny in action – from the formative years of Actress/NY Dolls, through (my favourite period of) The Heartbreakers and beyond. Thus, the film follows Johnny’s trajectory from his 1950s upbringing in NYC to his tragic passing in a New Orleans hotel room at only 38 years of age.
Every contributor in Looking For Johnny plays their part in helping to build the picture of JT the man (as opposed to JT the ‘man on stage’). Garcia has certainly assembled quite a cast of characters – including Walter Lure from the Heartbreakers, photographer/music biz legend and one-time Thunders tour manager, Leee Black Childers, singer Alison Gordy (from Johnny’s Oddballs project), ex-Clash drummer Terry Chimes and the disembodied voice of the late Malcolm McLaren. There are also some notable absentees – not least Patti Palladin and David Johansen.
For me, two contributors in particular stand out – the ever cheerful and endlessly entertaining Sylvain Sylvain (Johnny’s friend and fellow band member from waaaaay back) and the afore-mentioned Nina Antonia (Johnny’s friend and official biographer – whose ‘In Cold Blood’ biography of Johnny will also soon become a movie and whose recently released edited collection of Pete Doherty’s diaries, From Albion to Shangri-La, will also shortly be the subject of a blog post on this very site….watch this space amigos!…coming sooner rather than later). Nina’s contributions are both authoritative and insightful, adding vital narrative shape to the movie’s otherwise (necessarily but inescapably) fragmented structure. (Again, let me once more recommend Nina’s excellent ‘In Cold Blood’ Thunders biography as an indispensable companion to this film).
So, what does the film reveal about John Anthony Genzale – the man behind the legend that is Johnny Thunders? His family and friends will tell you definitively – but let me give you the ‘fan’s eye view’. This timely movie (for recognition of Johnny’s immense contribution to rock and roll is literally decades overdue) reveals a number of truths as follows:
- Johnny had a unique charisma – it’s there every time he appears on screen; whether solo or in a crowd, it is Johnny you notice above all others and at all times
- Johnny had a unique talent – a brilliant observation in the film runs as follows: “…there’s only a handful of guitarists in the world who can play a single note on a mass-produced instrument and you can tell immediately who’s playing.” (I think, if memory serves, it was Alison Gordy who said this).
- Johnny’s music will endure and will continue to inspire those who truly understand rock and roll – check out Sylvain quoting Bob Dylan talking about Johnny at the end of the film (I won’t spoil it for you here!)
Back in the day, I always wondered why Johnny never got the wider recognition he deserved. It might have taken decades, but Thunders is now being seen for the talented creative artist (and sensitive human being) he was – and this film is playing an important role in bringing that truth to a wider audience; reclaiming Johnny from the cartoon junkie image that never even began to tell the full story of Johnny Genzale.
The screening of the movie was quite an experience. There were faces from back in the day, current A-list rockers, members of the press and – brilliantly – evidence of a whole new generation of Thunders fans (I sat next to one), discovering Johnny’s music anew. And that’s the ultimate message of the film – although his was an often troubled life that was tragically short, Johnny was a flame that burned brightly; Johnny made his mark, made his contribution and his work more than stands the test of time. Johnny Thunders – thank you for the music and the memories. Danny Garcia – thank you for the movie. Catch it where you can amigos!