Story of a Junkie is a 1987 drama film directed by Lech Kowalski and starring John Spaceley. Distributed by Troma Entertainment. Filmed in documentary-style, the film follows the character of Gringo, a young man looking for fortune in New York, only to fall into heroin addiction.
The movie has amassed quite a reputation in certain circles for its depictions of hard drug usage in New York City’s East Village area. Many of the cast members, including leading man John Spaceley, are actual junkies. The numerous shooting-up sequences are reportedly entirely real, as are many of the drug dens and their denizens. Perhaps even more notable than the cinema verite structure is the almost total lack of moralizing on the part of the producers or its characters.
Lead actor Spaceley died in the early 1990s, reportedly from AIDS, which he contracted through intravenous drug use. His final moments are chronicled in yet another Lech Kowalski film, “Born to Lose: The Last Rock & Roll Movie”, a documentary about deceased former New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders.
Troma Entertainment hails Story of a Junkie as one of the company’s best films; it’s one of the most well-known outside of the films directed by Troma founders Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz.
A harrowing, bloody story of heroin addiction that puts films like Trainspotting to shame, Gringo mixes documentary footage with staged scenes to show the life of addict John Spacely.
Perhaps you’ve seen him somewhere and just can’t remember his name. The face is about an enigmatic as they come: classic Roman features topped by a greasy dyed matt of slicked back blond hair, pirate-style patch covering his right eye and cigarette dangling from an ever-present smirk. Or maybe you’ve never really noticed him and could frankly care less who he is or was. To you, John Spacely is just another loser, a human being throwing their life away by indulging in the most shameless of self-satisfactions: drug abuse. The minute you learn he’s a card-carrying member of the Riders of the White Horse, you’re thoughts turn to how selfish and stupid he is, how addiction is for the weak and lazy. You now no longer wish to know anything about him, his life, or how he ended up strung out in New York City. Instead, you sneer down your self-righteous nose and blame him (and his kind) for all the problems of the world. Maybe it would help you to learn a little about who John Spacely is. Perhaps your perceptions will change when you learn what drove him to drugs and what he has to do on a daily basis to survive. One thing’s for sure, the minute you see the horrifying docudrama Story of a Junkie, you will think twice about ever attempting to use drugs. This film is as successful a PSA warning about the terrors of dependency that you will probably ever see. It makes the Hollywood glamorization of such struggling souls that much more laughable.
GRINGO Story of a Junkie is about as close to pure European neo-realism as an American movie is ever likely to get. It is also a stunning example of the cinema vérité style of filmmaking, the capturing of events as they happen without concern about continuity or performance. Part documentary, part confessional, this occasionally brilliant but always brave movie is an incredibly searing indictment on the use and abuse of drugs.
Whereas Tinsel Town tripe likes to romanticize the ritualistic intake of mind and or mood altering substances as a photogenic character flaw, Story of a Junkie tells it like it really is. Never once white washing or trivializing the life of a heroin addict, director Lech Kowalski and his cast of real life drug users draw us directly into the warped urban war zone where the vast majority of pusher and partakers exist. Never cringing from the sights, the sounds, the smells and the surreality of the real drug culture, the desperation is palpable and the danger, predominant. From how fixes are “cut” to the hierarchy in a shooting gallery, you’ll be hard pressed to find another film that tackles this terrible subject with more authenticity. It is drug abuse as slasher film, a frightening, sometime funny and often fatalistic representation of people living a life with a maniacal monkey on their back.
It’s impossible for us non-addicts to understand the struggles and the will to survive (if only for the next score) of the person hopelessly obsessed with using. But for some reason, we are no longer a society that accepts brutal honesty. Everything needs to be sugarcoated with a small fraction of hope inserted to keep us feeling safe and secure. Frankly, the plain truth is all that Story of a Junkie has to offer. Without its integrity, its desire to get to the very heart of this corrupt cosmos, all we’d have is a carnival sideshow, a scandalous showcase of pure exploitation. But because of the tales it tells and the people who tell them, Story of a Junkie transcends its trappings to become a work of astounding power.
NY Illustrated – Saturday Night At Fort Apache – March 4, 1973
‘Three types of people use the streets of the South Bronx after dark: Policemen, Criminals, and Potential Victims.’
One in this public affairs series devoted to issues that concern the greater New York area. This program profiles Police Precinct 41 in the South Bronx, nicknamed “Fort Apache” because of the frequency and severity of violent crimes committed in the surrounding area. Narrated by Norman Rose, the program begins with a clip of Sgt. Bill Taylor addressing officers of the precinct’s anti-crime unit. Later, accompanied by Rose, Taylor tracks down and arrests a suspected mugger. In interviews with officers stationed at and previously assigned to the precinct, the following topics are discussed: the high risk of incurring severe injury while on duty and the ability to cope with fear; the reluctance among members of the police force to be assigned to the 41st precinct; completing tenure at the precinct as a step toward promotion; the high incidence of illegal weapons possession among area residents; and the factors linking street crime with drugs and poverty. Also included is footage of a typical night at the Lincoln Hospital emergency room, where the number of people suffering from gunshot wounds and stabbings often exceeds the hospital’s nightly capacity. Among those interviewed are Deputy Inspector Matthew Neary and Officers James Finn, Bob Gardner, and Tony Imbimbo. Commercials deleted. (This series occasionally runs under the title “New Jersey Illustrated” or “Connecticut Illustrated”; series dates unverified.) - The Paley Center For Media
Filmmakers Alan Raymond and Susan Raymond spent three months in 1976 riding along with patrol officers in the 44thPrecinct of the South Bronx, which had the highest crime rate in New York City. They produced about 40 hours of videotape that they edited into a 90-minute documentary.
The result was what New York Times TV critic John J. O’Connor called a “startlingly graphic and convincing survey of urban crime, violence, brutality and cynical despair”. Cases followed include the discovery of a dead body on the street, the rescue of a mother trapped in her apartment by a mentally ill son, an attempt to negotiate with a woman armed with an improvised flail who refuses to stop threatening her neighbor, and the arrest of a 70-year-old woman accused of hitting her daughter in the face with an axe. There is some introductory narration at the beginning describing the neighborhood and the time the documentary was filmed, but some unifying commentary is provided by an interview with Bronx Borough Commander Anthony Bouza, who ascribes the crime rate in the 44th Precinct to poverty, describes the hardening effects of urban violence on idealistic police officers, and likens himself to the commander of an occupying army, saying “We are manufacturing criminals… we are manufacturing brutality”.
The production was financed by the New York State Council on the Arts and WNET and cost only $20,000, thanks to the use of Portapak tape equipment; it would have cost an estimated $90,000 if film had been used. Special Newvicon tubes in the video cameras allowed them to tape with only streetlights for illumination, making them less conspicuous to subjects who might otherwise have fled from or approached the cameras.
The Police Tapes was an important source for Fort Apache, The Bronx, a 1981 film with Paul Newman and Ed Asner. It influenced the deliberately ragged visual style of the 1980s television police drama Hill Street Blues, which used handheld cameras to provide a sense of realism and immediacy—particularly during the morning roll call in each episode, which was based on a similar scene in The Police Tapes. Robert Butler, who directed the first five episodes, urged the camera operators to avoid carefully composed shots and to move their cameras frequently, telling them “If you’re having trouble focusing, that’s great.” This mock-documentary style, in turn, influenced many other television dramas.
Another line of influence runs from The Police Tapes to the Fox Networkreality TV series COPS. COPS, like its predecessor, closely follows police officers, suspects, and crime victims with handheld cameras. According to New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell, the style of COPS then became part of the visual language of feature films, so that “the DNA of [the Raymonds'] original has found its way into the film mainstream.”
A German film crew for station NDR [Norddeutscher Rundfunk] picked the perfect time to visit New York City for their street gang documentary, LEFTY – ERINNERUNG AN EINEN TOTEN IN BROOKLYN, as the area sweltered through a brutal summer heatwave and the infamous 1977 blackout. For five weeks, director Max H. Rehbein and his crew actually lived in the basement of a Brooklyn house owned by the parents of ‘Brother Lou’ [Louie Morales], the leader of ‘The Sex Boys’ (named after the street they hung out on, Essex — after dropping the first two letters), filming many of that gang’s most private moments and digging even deeper than the aforementioned ABC special. Unfortunately, the print’s narration is in unsubtitled German, but their footage alone makes this an astonishing, 88-minute artifact…
‘Lefty’ [Charles 'Carlos' Valentine] is the latest ‘Sex Boys’ casualty, first glimpsed in the Kings County morgue after being stabbed to death near Greenpoint’s McCarren Pool. Tempers within the gang are running hot, with Lou trying to keep his soldiers under control. The filmmakers follow them as they strut past razed buildings in their gang colors, leap subway turnstiles, convene a rooftop gang meeting, share brews and joints, perform some general vandalism, and celebrate Lefty’s truncated life with street fireworks.
That’s intercut with Sgt. Frank Santangelo, from the 75th Precinct’s youth gang task force, as he patrols the neighborhood, attempts to ‘rap’ with gang members and ventures into one of their boarded-up-building clubhouses, in hopes of quelling tensions with ‘The Crazy Homicides’ from Coney Island. Sometimes helping their community (aiding neighbors during a late-night apartment fire), other times prepping for war (a meeting with ‘The Ghetto Brothers’ to purchase pistols) and often just having everyday interactions (Louie’s gravedigger day job, arguing with girlfriends, getting seriously-ugly tattoos), it’s an intimate, unfiltered peek into ‘The Sex Boys.’
Without question, the most striking moments occur an hour in, because even a crime-ridden blackout doesn’t stop these crazy Germans from venturing into the war-zone-style streets with their cameras — filming Molotov-tossing kids, ransacked stores, looters fighting each other over an armful of clothes, and the overwhelmed police precinct…Rehbein adopts a fly-on-the-wall approach, with German narration and some bizarre synth soundtrack music added in post, and they must’ve been pounding back shots of Schnaps in the editing room when their tripped-out Halloween-party/haunted-house finale was conceived. From the shocking desolation of the South Bronx, to the bustling Coney Island boardwalk after dark, to Rikers Island — it’s all captured with an outsider’s inquisitive eyeand an almost TAXI DRIVER-esque amount of nighttime urban imagery. LEFTY is sprawling and unfocused, but also absolutely fascinating. – Shock Cinema