In October of 2000, my then 20-year-old brother Jonathan was sent to the oncology unit of Massachusetts General Hospital from the Tufts University campus infirmary after a month of persistent head and neck aches and a “suspicious” blood test. While in the waiting room, he stopped a nurse to ask what the word “oncology” meant. Less than 24 hours later he was diagnosed with leukemia.
At the time, I was an adjunct professor at New York University teaching undergraduate courses in philosophy. But, when I picked up my SONY DX-1000, pointed it at Jonathan, and pressed record, I felt like a filmmaker. When I wasn’t at NYU, I was filming Jonathan in Paramus, NJ in our childhood home, in a hospital room (where he spent about half of his time), or at my apartment in Manhattan. I wasn’t capturing him on video because I thought he would die. Although today I am grateful to have so much footage of my brother, when the camera was recording, it never crossed our minds that we were creating an archive for posterity’s sake. In our minds, we were creating a narrative for art’s sake.
A little background: Jonathan was a musician, a punk rocker to be more specific. He founded a garage rock band in 1999 called “The Physicals,” started calling himself “Johnny Physical,” and baptized the other members of the band: “Nick Fiction,” “Danny Animal,” and “Frankie Lines.” The Physicals were voted the best band on campus at Tufts University in the spring of 2000, and the members’ monikers were soon used more than their real names. So, long before my brother was the subject of my film narrative, he was the subject of his own narrative, one in which the line between life and art had already been blurred.
It felt perfectly natural to capture Jonathan’s crisis on camera. He was used to being the center of attention and, more importantly, to performing a particular part of himself for the sake of art. At first it was odd how Johnny Physical adapted to his new stage. Less than two weeks after he started chemotherapy treatment at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, when his blood counts were still perilously low, he performed an acoustic show for the other patients, which was advertised on the hospital bulletin boards as “Johnny Physical Plugged.” I was in the front row with my video camera as he wheeled his I.V. machine into the day room and broke into a new song he had written called “Chemotherapy.” His hair shaved close, he was somewhere between Iggy Pop and Pee Wee Herman as he roared: “Chemotherapy, chemotherapy, it’s what they’re telling me.”
A few months into his treatment, Jonathan developed a strange ringing in his ears and lost sensation in the tips of his fingers, but this didn’t discourage him from taking up the piano. He practiced into the wee hours of the night, falling in love with the instrument as well as with the works of the German romantic composers Schubert and Schumann. I shot a recital that he gave less than a year later.
The Physicals’ first record had been called “Get Physical With the Physicals.” In this spirit, Jonathan and I planned to turn the footage we were capturing into a concert video called “Physical Therapy.” In it, we would include footage from his acoustic show, from his jam session with Art Garfunkel (who heard about Johnny Physical and paid him a surprise visit in the hospital), and from his appearance as the “pinhead” at Joey Ramone’s annual birthday bash at CBGB (a hero of Jonathan’s since he was a teenager, Joey died of lymphoma in 2001). Slowly but surely, the legend of Johnny Physical grew. ARI-UP of the influential ‘70s punk band The Slits, also paid him a surprise visit in the hospital and Johnny would soon count 2001 Miss USA Candice Kruger and Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover girl Yamila among his legion of admirers.
Jonathan’s prognosis deteriorated but shooting of the film continued. Jonathan recorded an album of Johnny Cash covers when he could barely speak. He composed songs on an OmniChord OM-300 when he couldn’t hold a guitar. When even that became impossible, he simply made sounds into a tape recorder he kept at his bedside—a kind of verbal notebook. I captured all of it on video.
A week before Jonathan’s last visit to the intensive care unit, he was paid a visit by Albert Maysles, who at the time was shooting footage for a Bill Moyers documentary about death. Albert planned to interview Jonathan for 20 minutes. He left after he ran out of tape, two and a half hours later. Albert noticed a newspaper item from the Tufts Daily of Jonathan making out with “groupie 36,000.” Jonathan tried to explain Johnny Physical to Albert, but told him that he’d have to see our film to fully understand.
Jonathan passed away in June of 2002, over three years ago. At first, all I could do was stare at the stacks of digital tapes as they collected dust on my desk. Then, slowly but surely, I started watching the raw footage, tape by tape, logging time code, and mapping out sequences on a yellow legal pad. I realized that in addition to being about the power of music to transfigure experience, they were also about the camera’s power. Looking at his arm for a clean vein for the next syringe, he was Sid Vicious searching for an angry fix. When the chemo started to make its way through his arm, he was Lou Reed rushing on a run. And, yes, on a very (very) rare occasion he was Joey Ramone meeting a nurse that he could go for. The Physicals had performed for crowds of hundreds when Jonathan was healthy, but the camera gave him an audience of infinite possibility. For the last year and a half of his life, in cold examining rooms, miserable waiting rooms, lonely hospital rooms, he was never just a patient. He was a rock ‘n’ roll legend.
Albert Maysles was kind enough to grant me permission to use the tapes he had captured of Jonathan. My good friend Edet Belzberg agreed to executive produce. And in February, I will enter an editing studio to start working on my first short film. I want the film to unfold like a Physical song: fast, urgent, darkly comic, and fiercely unsentimental. Until someone discovers a cure for cancer, films about the disease will inevitably be sad. But this film, as you might have guessed by now, isn’t really about cancer at all.
For more information about Johnny Physical, check out www.johnnyphysical.com