There’s something special about rock ‘n’ roll folklore. It’s as if musicians hold such a high place in the public consciousness; we can’t accept that they’re subject to the same pedestrian logic as us. Robert Johnson was the greatest guitar play who ever lived, not through hard work and natural ability, but because he sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads. He couldn’t have just contracted pneumonia and died, as you or I would. It had to be a clause in the devil’s bargain.
Then you have Dylan’s motorcycle accident, the death of the real Paul McCartney, Elvis sightings, and the unlucky age of 27. Oh, and what about the murder in the audience just as the Stones start “Sympathy for the Devil” at Altamont? They were actually playing “Under My Thumb,” but the other story is better. The tragic end of the New York Dolls’ guitarist, Johnny Thunders, has transmitted similar signals to the tinfoil hats of music fans. His untimely death in a New Orleans hotel was quickly deemed drug-related, but evidence soon arose to imply there might be more to the story.
“…arrives in New Orleans with nothing but some spending money, a guitar, a bottle of methadone, and a killer impression of Ratso from Midnight Cowboy.”
Using that uncertainty as a foundation, Room 37 – The Mysterious Death of Johnny Thunders, directed by the Cordero Brothers, builds its story. Thunders (Leo B. Ramsey) arrives in New Orleans with nothing but some spending money, a guitar, a bottle of methadone, and a killer impression of Ratso from Midnight Cowboy. What was intended to be an escape from a manic life turns soon takes an unexpected U-turn. Without explanation, Thunders descends into a tangled mess of hallucinations and small-time crooks. It’s a little bit After Hours and a little bit The Lost Weekend.
Where the movie plants, its flag is in the mystery of Thunders’ condition and the visceral horror of his psychological nosedive. In both of these respects, the results vary. On the one hand, there’s a scene involving a guitar in a recording studio that’s both horrifying and hilarious, as good schlock should be. On the other, the storytelling and dialogue can be overbearing, especially toward the end of the movie. There’s even a big reveal that’s revealed twice. The first time, it works; the second time, you’re left thinking, “what am I, an idiot?”
“…musicians hold such a high place in the public consciousness, we can’t accept that they’re subject to the same pedestrian logic as us.”
If anything holds Room 37 – The Mysterious Death of Johnny Thunders back, it’s the palpable desire to do Thunders justice. Not only does this result in the dreaded paragraphs of text that bookend the movie, but it puts fetters on the story itself. Restrained in this way, it can only make incremental progress in any one direction.
With all of the mystery around Thunders’ death and the long tradition of rock ‘n’ mythos, why not lean into it? The movie only flirts with such a notion, ultimately choosing to overexplain everything—just look at the title—and tie up Thunders’ unfortunate death with an optimistic bow. It becomes the antithesis of rock ‘n’ roll: square.
Room 37 – The Mysterious Death of Johnny Thunders (2019) Written and directed by the Cordero Brothers. Starring Leo B. Ramsey, Devin McGregor Ketko, Timothy Lee Depriest, Jason Lasater, Jonny Sculls, Tyler Tackett, Jimbo Barnett, Sylvain Sylvain, Michael Jude Murphy, Socorro Jones.
5 out of 10 stars