Published on September 23rd, 2019 | by Robert Barry Francos


Room 37: The Mysterious Death of Johnny Thunders

Some of Johnny Thunder’s fans are boycotting the film, Room 37: The Mysterious Death of Johnny Thunders, though it’s better to approach it as fiction.

Here’s the thing about biographic films: they’re nearly all filled with inaccuracies. People and events are either omitted or combined, stuff is made up and changed for dramatic purposes. So there are going to be those who will see a biopic and cry foul, and others will just enjoy wherever the story leads as long as the soundtrack blasts it just right. Just look at the reactions to these three films released recently: The Dirt, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Rocketman. Love it or hate it, the accuracy level is pretty low or, more precisely, over the top.

But there is another level of biopic which is for all practical purposes a separate category, and that’s the flight of fancy. This is easily seen in films like Sid and Nancy and especially Velvet Goldmine. Here, we take a real person or situation and then take it to the metaphysical fiction. This is where I would place Room 37. It’s not really a biopic about Johnny Thunders (JT), it’s what they call in comic book land, a “what if” story. This is also the way it should have been promoted, in my opinion.

Another issue is the overlapping of the real. What I mean by that is while this is a largely fictionalized version of JT, when he gets a phone call from his ex-New York Dolls co-guitarist, Sylvain Sylvain, the voice – easily recognizable – is definitely Sylvain’s, indicating there is some lukewarm credibility.

In real life, when JT went to New Orleans to stay at St. Peter’s Guest House, he’d been reportedly clean for a while except for methadone, but was also in the later stages of Leukemia. Here, he is fighting to “get clean.” A metaphor for getting clean, of course, is going through hell, so this is where the film is leading us. Right from the start, the hints begin with the hotel proprietor saying, “I’ll be damned if one of our maids haven’t already cleaned it for ya.” The opening hand has been dealt. And room 37 looks about as peaceful as room 237 at the Overlook Hotel; both also deal with the tub being central, but for this film, it is a symbol for death as the original drummer of the New York Dolls, Billy Murcia, died in one.

Here’s some notes about the film’s version of JT as opposed to seeing him in reality; on stage, you never knew what you were going to get, the on-fire JT who would tear it up, running one song into the next, or the stoned JT who’s tongue would whip around his lips, but the latter was more rare. One of JT’s traits was to whip around the stage especially during the instrumental parts.

Near the beginning of the film, fictional JT performs while the album version of “Born to Lose” from the Heartbreakers’ L.A.M.F. plays on the soundtrack (why didn’t they use one from Live at Max’s instead, like “Let Go”?). Interestingly, the Dolls are often name-dropped, but not the Heartbreakers. When Leo Ramsey impersonates JT onstage, he kinda stays in one spot; JT was a whirler who would own the stage by covering as much of it as possible, sometimes jerking around it (and the chords on the guitar) like a ball in a pinball game. After a swan dive off stage in the film, JT states, “Happens all the time…” Oh, no it didn’t as far as I remember.

Ramsey plays JT as fidgety, more like late 1970s-early ‘80s days than near the end, but he’s actually okay as JT… at least a fictionalized version of him. The cast does well in general, and the camera seems to love to focus on what seems to be the only maid in the entire hotel, Iris (Devin McGregor Ketko, who reminds me of a young Mary Woronov). She also seems to be there more for JT to talk to, as a device for the audience to gain some exposition.

Lots of names are thrown around here (David, Sylvain, Jerry, Arthur, etc.) that fans would recognize but the average viewer would be perplexed. As someone who knows the backstory, I could smile, especially when I recognized Sylvain’s real and easily-identifiable voice on the phone.

As the film progresses and JT spirals down after his money and methadone are stolen. JT’s hair seems perpetually greasy for some reason; as the story progresses JT gets more and more desperate and ragged looking. This may be the filmmakers’ way of indicating the leukemia. JT continues to look more and more like a zombie/living dead creature, with racoon eyes and onion paper skin, stumbling around as he involuntarily detoxes. By the end, he’s looking more like MJ (Michael Jackson) than JT.

The film tries hard for symbolism, and it’s very stylized with a dingy tone thanks to some lens filters. Some have said this is more “horror,” but more likely possibly supposed to be “drug influence” as LSD was found in JT’s system at time of death (no other lethal level of drugs), thanks to a large dosing by someone. And yes, his money was missing when they found him, though the story adds more mystery to it. The filmmakers imply that much of what is happening in the film is part of his hallucinations from the LSD, but does not indicate (wisely) what is due to cinematic reality or within the character’s (JT’s) head. This works pretty well most of the time, though there is a whole hospital sequence that begins the final act that is a bit ridiculous; that being said, a couple of good jump scares are included.

Overall, it’s not a bad film, but not a great one either. I realize a contingent of JT’s fans are boycotting the film, but while I understand that sentiment, I think it’s better to approach this as fiction rather than biographical in any way, as I stated earlier. That being said, the end of the film gives us some title cards about Johnny’s Leukemia and lack of high drug levels during his autopsy as if to atone for the fiction part of the story.

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About the Author

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has lived in Saskatoon for over a decade, having spent most of his life in New York City. Part of the New York punk scene from nearly its inception, he has been known to hang out with musicians, artists and theatrical types. His fanzine, FFanzeen, was published from 1977 through 1988, giving him opportunity to see now famous bands in their early stages. Media, writing and photography have been a core interest for most of his life, leading to a Masters in Media Ecology from New York University. This has led to travel to Mexico, England, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Israel and Egypt, and recently he taught a university class in media theory in China.

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