Room 37: The Mysterious Death Of Johnny Thunders


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Room 37: The Mysterious Death Of Johnny Thunders
"It all hinges on an intensely committed central performance by Leo Ramsey."

On the 23rd of April, 1991, legendary guitarist Johnny Thunders was found dead at St Peter House in New Orleans. A long term heroin user who had been attempting to stay clean, he was initially assumed to be just another unlucky junkie, but things rapidly became more complicated. Whilst an autopsy showed there were not enough drugs in his system to have killed him and suggested leukaemia, Dee Dee Ramone claimed to have heard from one of Johnny's bandmates that he had been spiked with acid, robbed and murdered. The Cordero Brothers's film is a fictional exploration of these theories.

It all hinges on an intensely committed central performance by Leo Ramsey, who naturally possesses the etiolated look necessary to convince physically in the role and brings a sense of desperation and fatigue to everything he does. Even when Johnny is raging, his staccato movements convey his exhaustion; he's using momentum to carry his limbs because he lacks strength. It's a well observed portrayal without the reliance on shaking one usually sees, and such is Johnny's desperation that viewers will feel drawn to him - like hotel staff member Iris (Devin McGregor Ketko) - regardless of the prejudices they brought with them.

The Cordero brothers, directing, show a real understanding of the special unpleasantness of methadone and methadone withdrawal. The greenish tones of the medicine Johnny desperately craves stain everything we see; that sickly sweet smell, like something decaying, is echoed in the peeling, mouldy wallpaper and the grime that seems to get everywhere. His supply has been stolen, or so he is desperately trying to tell people. They don't seem wholly convinced by him. The audience may have doubts; he seems, at times, to doubt himself. But he has to take action. He has to recover his medicine, or find new medicine, or secure some kind of fix. He really don't want to fall back into the hands of pushers. Everyone assumes he has lots of money because he's a rock star (something that's rarely true in reality). He also faces sexual aggression because he's famous, because he's fragile, because he has so little power.

Whilst trying to contend with all of this and increasingly unsure that he can trust his senses - there's something more going on ere than just withdrawal - Johnny tries to solve the mystery behind the theft of his methadone. The audience, similarly disorientated, is invited to do likewise. This is a tightly written film. The clues are all there, tough not easy to untangle. Meanwhile, the simplest tasks become monumentally challenging, even before people start getting violent. This is a film that pays tribute to the quiet heroism required of addicts who want to stay sober and stay alive and face struggles most people couldn't imagine in the course of everyday life.

It's a film that is likely to hit much harder if you've used opiates or LSD yourself, or struggled with similar health issues. Some such people will find it a tough watch and would be well advised to have support on hand if they're at risk of lapsing, though nobody who hasn't been there is going to look at it as an advert for the pleasures of such substances. It's not a film for everyone and people who have no familiarity with these issue may lose patience with it, but others will be intrigued by its visually inventive storytelling and the mystery at its core.

Does it get to the truth of what happened to Johnny? Maybe, maybe not. What it does do, very well, is remind us that behind the fame and the fall was a human being.

Reviewed on: 17 May 2019
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Room 37: The Mysterious Death Of Johnny Thunders packshot
A fictional take on the mysterious death of the New York Dolls guitarist.

Director: Fernando Cordero Caballero, Vicente Cordero

Writer: Fernando Cordero Caballero, Vicente Cordero

Starring: Leo Ramsey, Devin McGregor Ketko, Timothy Lee DePriest

Year: 2019

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: US


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