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Hey, Ho, Let’s Go…To Court: Ramones Heirs Locked In Legal Battle Over Pete Davidson’s Joey Ramone Movie

Mr. Nimbus | 01/25/2024

There’s a new front in the long legal war between the family members of late Ramones founders Joey and Johnny Ramone, this time over a planned Netflix movie starring Pete Davidson centered on the pioneering punk band.

In a lawsuit filed Saturday (Jan. 21) in Manhattan court, Johnny’s widow, Linda Ramone, claims that Joey’s brother, Mickey Leigh (Mitchel Hyman) “covertly developed an unapproved and unauthorized Ramones-based biopic” based on his own “one-sided recitation of the history of the Ramones.”

Though the lawsuit doesn’t identify Netflix by name, it says that the disputed movie will be based on Leigh’s memoir, I Slept with Joey Ramone. Netflix’s planned movie, announced in 2021, has the same name; is based on the same book; and is being developed with the “support of the Estate of Joey Ramone.”

Since Linda and Leigh split ownership of the intellectual property for the band — widely regarded as pioneers of punk rock and one of the most influential rock bands of all time — Linda says a movie that will focus heavily on the Ramones as a group cannot go forward without her say-so. 

“Ms. Ramone objects to defendants’ attempt to create a Ramones film without her involvement — not to be obstinate, but rather based on defendants’ disregard for [Ramones] assets and their conduct and treatment of Ms. Ramone and her late husband,” Linda’s attorneys write. “To permit defendants alone to tell the authoritative story of the Ramones would be an injustice to the band and its legacy.”

Though the planned movie is one major point of dispute, Linda’s lawsuit also includes a raft of other allegations against Leigh and David Frey, a director of the Ramones’ holding company appointed to his role by Leigh. She says the pair have “effectively shut down the entire company,” unfairly withheld payments to her, and otherwise thrown the company’s operations into chaos.

“It is apparent from defendants’ continuing course of conduct that their main objective is to torment Ms. Ramone until she agrees to sell her interests,” Linda’s lawyers write. “Regrettably, Defendants appear willing to allow the band’s legacy to decay, in order to benefit their own self-interest.”

“They Weren’t Friendly”

Joey (real name Jeffrey Ross Hyman), who served as the band’s lead vocalist from their founding in 1974, died of cancer in 2001. Johnny (real name John William Cummings), the band’s guitarist, died in 2004, also of cancer.

The two punk rockers, who were not actually related, had a notoriously unbrotherly relationship — a rift rooted partly in their differing personalities and political views, but also in the fact that Linda dated Joey before eventually marrying Johnny. The two nonetheless formed a lucrative business partnership, touring heavily for decades until the band finally broke up for good in 1996. But in a 2016 interview with the New York Post, Leigh put it bluntly: “They weren’t friendly.”

In the years since the two bandmates passed away, that feud has seemingly continued between Leigh and Linda.

As the executors of Johnny and Joey’s respective estates, Linda and Leigh each own half of Ramones Productions Inc., an entity that has been described in court filings as “the vehicle through which the iconic punk rock musical group … markets, merchandizes, licenses and produces its memorabilia and musical related products.”

In 2018, Leigh filed a legal action against Linda via private arbitration, alleging that she was improperly using the band’s intellectual property and unfairly associating herself with the “Ramones” name with projects like a “Ramones Ranch” in Los Angeles, violating the agreement that governs how Ramones Productions is run.

In a decision that was later made public in court, an arbitrator partly sided with Leigh, restricting how Linda could use “The Ramones” name, and even requiring her to go by “Linda Cummings-Ramone” in certain situations. But the arbitrator roundly criticized both sides for their ongoing feuding, reminding them that they had an “almost sacred mission to be the caretakers for the band’s creative work.”

“Instead, the parties have allowed their personal egos and their animus for one another to interfere with their joint obligations by failing to communicate, obfuscating information and unreasonably withholding their approvals,” the arbitrator wrote in May 2019.

The admonishment did little good. Last year, the pair headed back to litigation, this time after Linda initiated arbitration proceedings that aimed to remove someone from the board of directors of Ramones Productions. Leigh filed a court case to halt the arbitration, arguing that it was an improper use of that process. That case remains pending.

“A Universal Story of Family”

The latest legal scuffle appears to have been triggered in part by the plans for a movie version of I Slept With Joey Ramone — Leigh’s 2009 memoir billed as “an enduring portrait of a man who struggled to find his voice and of the brother who loved him.” Netflix announced the film in April 2021, with Davidson set to co-write and star as Joey, and Jason Orley (Big Time Adolescence, I Want You Back) signed on to direct. 

“’I Slept with Joey Ramone’ is a great rock anthem that will make an equally great rock biopic, set apart by a universal story of family,” Adam Fogelson, chairman of the company spearheading the film, said in Netflix’s press release announcing the project.

Netflix said that the movie, which remains in early-stage “development” in 2024, would be produced with “the cooperation and support of the Estate of Joey Ramone.” But in her new lawsuit this week, Linda says that such a project needs the sign-off of Ramones Productions, not just Joey’s estate.

“As 50% shareholder of RPI, Ms. Ramone would never have consented to defendants’ unilateral development of a Ramones biopic,” her lawyers wrote. “Nor would she (then or at any point in the future) agree to permit the inclusion of any RPI intellectual property or recordings in such a film project.”

According to Linda’s attorneys, Leigh and Frey have told others that they plan to “circumvent” any objections she has to the movie, including by potentially re-recording Ramones songs that could be used in the film. And once they do so, she says they will unfairly get to tell the “authoritative story” of the iconic band.

“There will likely not be an appetite for a subsequent Ramones film, thus destroying the single most lucrative and substantial corporate opportunity of the company and usurping it as defendants’ own,” Linda wrote.

Netflix is not named in the lawsuit and is not accused of any wrongdoing. The company did not return a request for comment on the new lawsuit.

Life Rights? Or Free Speech Rights?

Legally speaking, whether a movie producer would need one band member to sign off on a movie about one of his famous bandmates is a tricky question. Would John Lennon’s estate need to sign off on a Paul McCartney movie? Could Dave Grohl stop a Kurt Cobain biopic?

While many risk-averse filmmakers and studios secure “life rights” before they make such movies — essentially a guarantee that the production will not be hamstrung by litigation over likeness rights or defamation allegations — they’re not strictly necessary. The First Amendment largely protects the right to make movies based on real historical figures, whether they want their story told or not.

“Life rights are an agreement for access and a promise not to sue, but there’s no intellectual property attached to our life story itself,” says Lisa Callif, an attorney at the firm Donaldson Callif Perez who specializes in rights clearance for films and TV. “We all have a First Amendment right to tell a story. A story about a band is just comprised of facts, even if they’re really interesting facts.”

But in practical terms, a movie about a famous band raises a unique problem: It effectively needs to use that band’s copyrighted music. Can you imagine watching Walk The Line without hearing Johnny Cash songs, or Straight Outta Compton without any N.W.A tracks? In the context of a musical biopic, that gives someone like Linda, with her veto power over the band’s music, more leverage to demand involvement.

“It gets stickier with rights to music,” Callif said. “Even if you can tell the story, you’re not going to be able to license any of the music.”

The other layer to the current dispute is contractual. Linda’s lawsuit points to a legal settlement from 2009 in which both she and Leigh allegedly agreed that any “separate or individual projects” involving Ramones intellectual property would “require the prior written approval” of the company and its owners. Even if a studio has the right to tell any historical story it wants, a party to a contract could be barred from signing certain deals.

“Intransigence and Harmful Actions”

Beyond the dispute over the film, Linda’s new lawsuit includes a slew of other accusations about Leigh, echoing the strongly worded tone of their previous legal battles.

Linda says Leigh and Frey have “refused to engage with the Ramones’ record label, its social media creative agency, its merchandising partners, or its long-term business managers”; that they “regularly create internecine disputes and unnecessary work that drains the company of funds”; that they have “prevented the company from conducting basic operational tasks”; and have “baselessly and in bad faith” withheld dividend payments from her, “effectively holding Ms. Ramone’s money hostage” unless she agrees with their initiatives.

“After exhausting every resource at her disposal to try to right the ship … Linda Ramone reluctantly brings this action as a last resort,” Linda’s lawyers write. “Simply put, RPI, as currently constituted, is not working due to the intransigence and harmful actions undertaken by [Frey and Leigh].”

Ultimately, Linda claims that the only possible solution to the years-long dispute is to remove Frey from the company and appoint a court-order receiver to take charge of it: “Mr. Frey’s continued involvement and obfuscation remains a significant hurdle toward resolving even the most straightforward of operational issues.”

In technical terms, the lawsuit accuses Frey and Leigh of breaching their fiduciary duty to the company and of unjust enrichment. It demands that the court order Frey’s removal as director of the company, and requests the appointment of a receiver.

An attorney for Leigh declined to comment on the lawsuit’s allegations. An attorney for Frey did not immediately return requests for comment.

“Ramones Fans Want A Ramones Movie”

In some ways, the current dispute over the Joey biopic was predicted by that 2019 arbitration ruling which detailed the long struggle between Linda and Leigh.

In it, the arbitrator went to great lengths to plead with Linda and Leigh to put aside their differences. He warned them that their “time-consuming and costly” legal battles had caused the Ramones brand to experience “tepid growth.”

“Mickey Hyman and Linda Cummings-Ramone have been entrusted with the exceedingly important mission of preserving the legacy of the Ramones for its existing followers, and to grow this iconic brand to a new world-wide group of music fans,” the arbitrator wrote at the time “The  only way those goals can be accomplished, in my estimation, is for there to be some radical  changes made by Mickey, Linda, and their representatives.”

If those changes could be made, the arbitrator identified one key area for future growth: A movie. He cited the then-recent success of the movie Bohemian Rhapsody, which he said had boosted Queen to “its highest chart position in 38 years” and “demonstrates the power that a biopic can have on improving the stature of a rock band.” That movie eventually earned more than $900 million.

“In my estimation, Ramones fans want a Ramones movie,” the arbitrator wrote at the time. “To make that happen, each side will need to put on hold their individual desires to make a Mickey movie or a Linda movie and join together to authorize a great biopic to be made about this historically important band.”

This post was originally published on this site

Written by Mr. Nimbus

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