1952, Queens, New York. Young Johnny Genzale is born and raised by his mother and older sister after his father decided to keep on with his wanton ways. Johnny is a cool kid, playing baseball, hanging out with friends. And then he discovers rock & roll and his new aura starts to sprout up like a crocus hungry for springtime. Johnny Genzale will eventually become Johnny Thunders. He will make history with a bunch of make-up-wearing glam punkers calling themselves the New York Dolls. He will gain even more street cred with his Heartbreakers. He will write a catalog full of knock-out songs and even film a movie. He will be adored and hated, sat upon a pedestal and pulled down by the clawing blood red nails of smack. He will age only thirty-eight years.
Johnny Thunders is one of those lights that will stay bright for many, many years to come. His legend will make sure of that. The coolness of him in leather and teased hair will adorn posters on bedroom walls and be the imminent factor in why some kids will pick up a guitar and try to play, all while standing in front of a mirror with their legs spread apart emulating the poster. The legend will attract the moths to the flame but it will be the music that makes it glow. And with the new DVD, Looking For Johnny: The Legend Of Johnny Thunders, kids for many years to come will have the chance to see and hear who and what Johnny Genzale created. It will humanize a poster of ultimate coolness.
Created by Danny Garcia to shed new light on Thunders, he has amalgamated an interesting cast of characters who talk about Thunders with an almost surreal awe: Sylvain Sylvain, Sami Yaffa, Walter Lure, photographer Bob Gruen, Lenny Kaye, Billy Rath, Gail Higgins, Leee Black Childers, Richard Lloyd, Marty Thau; all names that ring a bell with followers of the New York punk scene. They tell stories, in both the main feature and deleted scenes extra, which make the mystery of Johnny Thunders a little more down to earth. Although David Johansen is missing, Malcolm McLaren provides an eerie voice from the grave in audio footage interspersed throughout.
Sylvain called Thunders “the best songwriter that ever lived,” and his segments, although few, are one of the highlights of the documentary, because he loved the scrawny little guy, admired his talent, believed in him, still to this day waves his flag while others have put him to rest. Peter Jordan flashes back to a time when the Dolls were stopped by the police and Thunders was asked to pull down his pants, believing he was concealing a wad of dope; Howie Pyro talks about getting into a fight with Thunders at Max’s; Lenny Kaye compares him to Davy Crockett as the band explored new territory outside their New York bubble of hipness.
Thunders’ years with the Dolls is only a fraction of his story and the filmmakers spend most of their time on the Heartbreakers and Thunders’ solo work, as it should be. Footage from concerts and old interviews are delectable morsels for sure. Thunders is shown in all his vulnerability and mysteriousness, with a sparkle in his eyes that is either the smart ass peeping out or the heroin snickering within. Thunders lost his first family but gained a new one. But following years of just pummeling his body with toxic avengers and living the life of a rock star 100% of the day, his light turned off in a New Orleans French Quarter hotel room. He had leukemia, which he had kept private. He knew he was sick, he knew he was dying. Garcia is very vocal about the NOPD’s nonchalance of Thunders’ death, blowing it off as another misadventure of some crazy drug-fueled rock star, when in actuality it wasn’t.
Extras on the DVD include a “behind the scenes” featuring an interview with Garcia, some music clips, and the fun deleted scene interviews. The pudding in the mix is Thunders being Thunders. His music, his guitar playing, his songs, his contribution to the encyclopedia of cool, are all what will continue to fuel his posthumous flame. And although this documentary can’t possibly expose all the nuances of what made Thunders who he was, Looking For Johnny gets awfully close to the person who created him.