Director Danny Garcia is a huge Johnny Thunders fan. Huge. I mean, Garcia made this film about the guy, so it’s fairly obvious. With that said, his fandom is Looking for Johnny’s biggest flaw. Throughout, Garcia simply cannot get out of his own way, and the directorial choices he makes (and doesn’t make) hobble what might have otherwise been an interesting story.
For one, it never feels as if Garcia has a clear sense of what he’s trying to do in the film. Sure, he’s trying to tell the story of this guy who was in the New York Dolls and the Heartbreakers, a guitarist who died under dubious circumstances, but after watching this multiple times I’m left confused. There are parts of the film—the expository parts—that feel unreasonably rushed. Worse, I have no idea what the hurry is.
Early on in the career of the Dolls, for example, drummer Billy Murcia chokes on hot coffee in a British bathtub after well-meaning bumblers try to revive him from an overdose. The film talks about how sad the event was, how vital Murcia was to the band, and prior to that moment the dude is barely even mentioned. It’s as if director Garcia is ticking off items from a checklist throughout this film, like he’s trying to get plot points out of the way.
This happens a little later on in the film when Thunders’ band Gang War is briefly mentioned—I had no idea that Thunders played with Wayne Kramer from the MC5! Unfortunately, I don’t know much more than this, because, again, the whole thing is dealt with in less than a minute, as if another box is being checked off. Despite this, we’re told about the band’s potential and whatnot—told, rather than Garcia using exposition to develop the point.
And the same thing happens again later: Stiv Bators of the Dead Boys is briefly in cahoots with Thunders in a band setting, but Bators dies, Thunders is devastated, and any number of aging New York scenesters tell us how ___________ the whole thing was. What Garcia misses, or ignores, is that a bunch of talking heads telling us how important people are does not get the point across. This is a documentary: we want to be shown through footage and interviews.
I get that the footage Garcia uses throughout must have been a labor of love, one that induced much salivation when rare or never-before-seen stuff was unearthed, but the choices to use said clips are being made at the expense of a cohesive narrative. Jeez, even Thunders’ death (or was it murder?) in a New Orleans hotel room feels rushed, though I assumed (incorrectly) Garcia was sprinting through the rest of the film to dig deep into the incident like a punk rock Unsolved Mysteries. Nope.
So what’s the rush, then? Why are so many seemingly salient points skimmed over? Beats me, because a majority of this film feels like sitting through a bunch of Johnny Thunders’ uninteresting associates blathering on. There’s a fair amount of canoodling about how Thunders got wasted on heroin, a bunch of people talking about how affecting his music was, occasional discussions of the man’s musical habits (though there’s precious little in the way of performance throughout—there’s often grainy footage of a band while someone or other talks over music playing in the background, but not the music the band in said footage is playing—this is especially the case for the first half of the film), and an overall sense of worship and reverence that I just do not get.
It’s great to hear from photographer Bob Gruen and Sylvain Sylvain, one of the two original surviving Dolls, but the assembled cast often feels scraped together, as if the director would take anyone available, and as if they’re grateful to be on camera to tell their story. It just doesn’t feel authoritative narratively, especially since the important bits seem glossed over in favor of…..well, nothing. He left too soon, got too fucked up, repeat.
The reason I was psyched to watch this in the first place was to find out why there was so much mystique about Johnny Thunders—there’s surely more to it than the whole “live fast, die young” thing, right? Unfortunately, I have no idea at the end of the movie: the aforementioned scenesters who narrate the film seem to dictate the film’s flow, rather than the director having a strong vision and asking questions to get the answers he was looking for. What we’re left with is a cipher—over which any number of people fawn and preen—and a missed opportunity. –Michael T. Fournier (No address listed)