The new documentary, ‘Looking for Johnny’, flows like film noir in parts. The opening shots of New York City set the pace. The camera couches the island with contrasts. It is vacuous and frenetic, grandiose but isolating, gritty and gleaming. Taxis, overbearing bridges and a lost in the crowd feel surfaces. After some facts about Thunders' birth in 1952, Queens, and shots of his former school, Johnny Thunders is shown during the course of an interview.

“Nobody knows what I want to be and what I want to say—nobody listens.” If the punk singer/bassist had said less, his sad brown eyes would have still spoken volumes. He was admired by band members for his openness and creativity. Sylvain Sylvain, his bandmate from the New York Dolls, lit up each time he uttered Thunders’ name. “I think Johnny, to me, was the best songwriter that ever lived.”

Raised by a single mother -“his father was a lady-killer” - and nurtured by his older sister’s record collection of “girl bands”, Thunders buried himself in music. It didn’t always heal the hole in his heart, though. “The thing that was always missing was a father figure,” offers Thunders’ biographer, Nina Antonia.

Thunders floated through high school bands but got serious after meeting Arthur “Killer” Kane on McDougal St. in 1970 and, with Rick Rivets, they collaborated. Rivets was displaced, and with David Johansen, Sylvain, Kane and Billy Murcia, he launched the New York Dolls. The gimmick arose because “girls play with dolls.” Their look was outlandish and intrigued even the most jaded New Yorkers. It included knee-length boots, piled-high, teased hair and exaggerated make-up. Rock photographer Bob Gruen expressed what many were probably thinking though - “I didn’t know any women who dressed like that.”

There isn’t that much live footage of the Dolls at this point in the film. Fortunately, the comments and archival shots served as strong, transitional devices and the cultural asides are focused and thought provoking. The New York Dolls scene was influenced by Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground. They opened for Rod Stewart at Wembley. Unfortunately drugs and alcohol were beginning to destroy the band. Tragedy would befall drummer Billy Murcia who overdosed on a combination of alcohol and barbiturates, but his replacement Jerry Nolan came along at the right time. He would form a close bond with Thunders and provide a wall of sound.

Still, the band was considered out of control and unreliable. They were “out of the comfort zone of many labels.” When they finally got signed with Mercury Records with Todd Rundgren overseeing the production, they felt a surge of accomplishment although Sylvain Sylvain admits, “They gave us a great record, but it could have been better.” Their 1973 self-titled debut was over the top. Thunder’s riffs were put under scrutiny. “He had a couple of standardised licks,” said one speaker. Thunders was accused of imitating Keith Richards and Chuck Berry. To many fans he had still not established his place as an original player.

Their 1974 sophomore album, ‘Too Much, Too Soon’, was produced by George ‘Shadow’ Morton (The Shangri-Las, Janis Ian, etc.) The album pinched more from the blues than their debut. They may have been on their way to solidifying an original sound or at least they might have shown the world they had the flexibility to explore new terrain, but drug addiction and erratic behavior still reared its vulgar head. By 1975, hanging by a thread, the Dolls needed, at the least, a new visual image. They acted on this theme, but it wasn’t enough. “Jerry Nolan and Johnny Thunders got monkeys on their back but they’re trying to make it work,” recalls Sylvain Sylvain.

When the film segues to Thunder’s formation of The Heartbreakers, there are a lot more live performance scenes. The energy and charisma is undeniable. They filled a niche: “A rock band that seemed to come out of the punk scene.” The drug problem was still an issue but we knew that. The point was revamped.

The Heartbreakers phase by the late 1970s had caused huge financial strife. And their new album, 1977’s ‘L.A.M.F.’ on Track Records dissatisfied Nolan. There were technical glitches galore and fingers pointed every which way. These factors filtered down to the Heartbreakers’ demise.

By 1978, Thunders had embarked on a solo career. ‘So Alone’ featured some of his most heartbreaking but fascinating songwriting. He worked with Gang War. Domestic unrest, meanwhile, blighted his brief bouts of sobriety. When his wife jumped ship with children in tow, he was deeply hurt, but Gruen chimes in with his own perspective about why she left the relationship. It was “not because she took them away, but because he drove them away.”

Because Thunders left the U.S. for Paris, the curious press asked him. “Why?”

His face looks ashen and lived-in. He speaks softly, yet with conviction:
“It wasn’t good for my health,” he says, about leaving his drug-addled domicile.

Antonia recalls, “Johnny was always at war with himself emotionally.”

In France, he was asked to score and act in films - “although he was mostly playing himself,” Antonia asserts. Thunders shows promise as an actor. He looks pensive, vulnerable and in control of his character.

In 1983, he recorded ‘Hurt Me’, an acoustic album, on which he poured out his emotions. The footage of Thunders performing ‘All By Myself” is especially riveting.

His 1988 recording ‘Copy Cats’ was enhanced by good engineers and lauded by the British press. It showed “a different side of him,” says Antonia. “He experiments with different registers in his voice.”

Thunders haggles with Dee Dee Ramone. They’re in one sense in awe of each other but perhaps the competition gets the best of them. Thunders goes to rehab but finds the lure of drugs just as strong when he leaves. Jerry Nolan is shown feeling melancholic about their last show in Japan in 1991. It was that year that Thunders was found dead at a New Orleans hotel at only 38 years old. There was little in the way of investigation.

Of course, fans, family and band members were devastated but committed to extolling his legacy. “Bob Dylan said he wished he had written, ‘You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory’,” says Sylvain Sylvain towards the conclusion.

This documentary is packed with facts, keen observations about youth culture and stacks of superb, archival photographs. Thunders is painted as vulnerable and uniquely talented. He skates the fine line between being a victim of circumstance and just plain spineless. The challenge of young fame and its pressures is strongly examined. The live shots of several songs really bring his raw talent to life: “Can’t Keep My Eyes on You’ is phenomenal, for example.

New York Dolls manager Marty Thau, award-winning photographer Bob Gruen, Heartbreakers manager Gail Higgins, Nina Antonia and Sylvain Sylvain spice up the commentary. Sometimes the judgments sound severe and sometimes they sound spot on and incredibly fair, but then they were there and we were not. ‘Looking for Johnny’ makes you wish you were, so you could see for yourself.







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