As unusual as it is to think of a hardcore heroin addict as a “legend”, that word is truly applicable to the one and only Johnny Thunders, guitarist with The New York Dolls and The Heartbreakers. Thunders is a myth, a ghost, a story, a hero, a villain and a tragic superstar who never made it big but was and, 23 years after his death, still is larger than life. Looking For Johnny – The Legend of Johnny Thunders helps shed a broader light on that still-beloved myth.
This documentary traces Thunders’ (John Genzale) early years in Queens, New York; his pain of growing up without a father and being bitten by the rock & roll bug after being a skilled baseball player as a teen. His joining up with the band that became the New York Dolls sealed his reputation; upon their split in 1975, his forming the Heartbreakers with ex-Dolls drummer Jerry Nolan sealed his legend. There are many testimonials and recollections by friends such as the Dolls’ Syl Sylvain; Walter Lure of the Heartbreakers, photographer Bob Gruen, etc.
The telling of Thunders’ tale is straightforward and linear, which makes it worth watching; some of the archival footage – especially of the Dolls – is, at points, both wonderful and surprising to see and Thunders’ music takes on a greater meaning when you hear some of the stories that fit the songs. One of the most gratifying things to learn about Thunders was how prolific he was as a writer and how skilled he was as a guitarist. Certainly, the high point for me was seeing a live solo acoustic performance of “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory”, where he played with passion; sounded great, clear and presumably not on drugs, which was, tragically, difficult for him.
Kudos to Danny Garcia and all those involved. With more than 40 songs in the soundtrack and a “who’s who” from the founding members of the New York scene, Looking For Johnny is a fine film.
Looking For Johnny – The Legend of Johnny Thunders is available now