Johnny Physical is New York’s biggest rock star you’ve never heard of. Lead singer of garage band, The Physicals, Johnny was Joey Ramone, Mick Jagger and Sid Vicious, rolled into one, until he was diagnosed with leukemia at age 20. But instead of retiring his dreams of rock superstardom, Johnny turned his cancer ward into a mosh pit, and lived as a punk until the day he died. His brother, Joshua Neuman, was there to film it all, and with Johnny Physical Lives, is finally give Johnny the encore he deserves.
Featuring everything from footage of The Physicals’ first show to the singer’s last moments in the hospital, the part animated documentary takes the viewer inside the lives of Johnny Physical, and Jonathan Neuman, the 20-year-old Tufts junior who created him. Behind the lens is Joshua, who artfully shares his brother’s story. But the film goes far beyond a documentary about death, showing us a secret world between brothers, filled with irony and rebellion. Jonathan comes alive through Joshua’s words, and animation in the spirit of Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, painting a gripping portrait of another musician gone way too soon. Jonathan Neuman may have died young, but Johnny Physical will live forever.
BULLETT caught up with Joshua Neuman, ahead of Johnny Physical Lives‘ New York City premiere.
Tell me about Johnny Physical Lives.
My brother was diagnosed with leukemia in October of 2000, and at the time he was in a fairly successful garage rock band called The Physicals. He was at Tufts University, they were the biggest band on campus, he had played on the East Coast with a bunch of big bands, and it was just his labor of love, because he wrote all the music, he cast all the members—you didn’t join The Physicals, you tried out for The Physicals. He was in control of everything, so this was sort of a rude interruption during his junior year. When he checked into the hospital, he just started performing for the other patients. We were like, ‘Well, Johnny Cash performed in Folsom Prison,’ and there was this Cramps video floating around at the time of them playing The Napa State Mental Hospital. So we decided to make a rock and roll documentary about Johnny Physical’s new stage.
The movie contrasts Jonathan in the hospital with Johnny Physical as a punk in downtown New York City. Where did that idea come from?
A lot of his formative musical influences were from New York—he worshipped the downtown punk scene of the ‘70s—and a lot of his formative influences were heroin addicts. So we were listening to this music and shooting this film as he was essentially shooting up all of these poisons, throughout the year and a half he was in the hospital—that wasn’t an irony that escaped us. In a lot of ways, this is a film about downtown New York City, and celebrates the punk that emerged from New York in the 1970s—i’s a bit of an homage to what was once downtown. The idea was to show the world through Johnny’s eyes. While on video, you see this drab, really depressing world of a cancer ward, but through animation, you enter his imagination and we see this fantastical Manhattan of the 1970’s come alive, and Johnny Physical rocking in that world. This wasn’t how we had hoped he would be returning to New York City, in a cancer hospital, the most un rock ‘n roll thing he could’ve done, but that he turned it into something rock ‘n roll, makes it special.
How did you decide you wanted to use animation?
When we were making the film, we had a blast. Sure, we thought there were sad parts—the depressing context didn’t escape us for a moment. But it was also kind of dark and twisted and funny at times, and also, it felt really inspiring. When I showed people the video footage I had shot, shortly after his passing, all they could feel was sad. Partially because you know the kid dies in the end, but also, there’s just something instinctively sad about a young person with their head shaved—that this thing happened to them way too early, and not just that they died, but that their life was stolen from them. I realized, in order to get the other stuff—the funny, the twisted, the inspiring—I would need another visual language so people could see the world through our eyes, and feel what we felt during that time.
What were some of the ways you really incorporated Jonathan, and his influences?
Sometimes I tell friends it felt like Jonathan co-directed the film with me. Partially I’m being hyperbolic, but the way we did the animation was really to cull from his influences. The Johnny character is sort of a cross between Buddy Holly and Pee Wee Herman, his guitarist looks like Johnny Thunders, his bassist looks like Dee Dee Ramone, and you see them at CBGB’s, and he’s got a suite at The Chelsea Hotel. But that being said, it was also culling from his favorite movies. Obviously he wasn’t there with me to help me with the animation, but I wanted it to really feel like it was plausible that this emerged from his imagination. You’ll recognize certain compositions in the animation that derived directly from his favorite films—The Goonies, Trainspotting—and then some of his favorite scenes from formative influences during his childhood, like Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Then the whole New York ‘70s scene is drenched in the color scheme of He-Man and The Masters Of The Universe. The idea is that you’re not just figuratively entering his imagination, but when the animation appears, you’re really exploring his inner world.
What was the hardest part of making the film?
This is my first film, for one thing, so learning how to make a film. I think it’s great to just make something, get it done and learn on the job, but I didn’t want this to be the film I learned how to make a film on. I wanted this to be great. Making a film isn’t so hard, but making something you’re really psyched about is. Ultimately, I was making a film, but I was also creating a memorial to his life and legacy. So I took the job very seriously. The hardest part was making it, but also just finishing it, because it felt so much like he was co-directing with me, and we were collaborating on this, ending it was really hard. I don’t know how many people get to work on a movie with a dead guy, but it’s a pretty intense feeling. It’s partially artistic, but it’s partially like using a ouija board in the way that moments emerge.
What do you want people to take away from it?
First and foremost, the music. He was a really talented musician—not necessarily skilled, but had a real flair for writing a hook. I also think it’s also just about time. One thing that pissed Jonathan off a lot when he was sick, was when people would come visit him and say stuff like, ‘Oh this will all be over before you know it,’ or ‘You’ll be better in a year, if you could just get through the year, you’ll be fine.’ His response was always, ‘This is time, too.’ In a lot of ways, that’s the message of the film, and his message, is just really not living life for some other time no matter how bad things are. I mean it limited him a lot—he wasn’t always able to play music, he wasn’t always able to even lift a guitar through his illness, and we show all that in the film. But he was always able to embrace his time and I think that’s a beautiful thing.
The film is about Jonathan, but it’s also about your relationship. Why did you decide to make yourself a character?
It’s about this shared secret world we have. But also, he’s hard to identify with, quite frankly. He’s very special, and he doesn’t want to be changed so much. That’s sort of the drama of the whole thing—the main character doesn’t change. He’s 20 years old, on top of the world, the worst possible thing happens, and nothing changes. Obviously, his circumstances change, but his narrative continues. As time passed, it just became impossible to ignore that the making of the film was part of it. The journey wasn’t just the year and a half he was in the hospital with cancer, but the 13 years of me remembering that time and trying to figure out what the hell to do with it—what a great responsibility that is, but what a great opportunity. Also, it was a little bit about not wanting to take any of his stage away. I liked standing in the crowd and watching him onstage, I never wanted to be onstage with him.
Do you feel like you accomplished what you set out to do with the film?
No because he’s not yet a rock star. I feel like, maybe the first leg of our journey is over, but he still needs to become a household name. That part, I feel like we still have ahead of us.
Buy tickets here, to see Johnny Physical Lives at IFC this Monday.