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.
File under Cult Movies, Culture, Massive Consumption of Drugs, New York City History, Punksploitation, SeMeN SPeRmS BLArRrG, SeMeN SPeRmS ViDeO CLuB