Review: The Rise and Fall of the Clash (2012) – By: Mark Bedford

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Our November/December journal is themed Cinema & Subcultures. As usual, we have a variety of exciting subjects. Juan Pedro Escudero is contributing a paper on ‘Gypsies’ and flamenco in Spanish Cinema and Donovan Krill on the representation of adopted individuals in film. Eylem Atakav has written a short piece about her upcoming book Women and Turkish Cinema – Gender Politics, Cultural Identity and Representation. And lastly we are publishing two interviews: one with Dutch film maker Jim Taihuttu about his award winning film Rabat and one with the celebrated documentary maker Bernardo Ruiz who will discuss his film: Reportero.

In this blog post, Mark Bedford, who previously contributed to our Rhythms of Rebellion issue, reviews the new Clash documentary. The music documentary or ‘rockumentary’ (a term first coined by Rolling Stone Magazine in 1967) is a very interesting subgenre. The essential music documentary needs to have that perfect balance of musical footage and historical information. The harmony between both elements is difficult to achieve, but when done right a rockumentary can serve as an important chronicler of modern culture.

Review: The Rise and Fall of the Clash (2012)- Director, Danny Garcia

By: Mark Bedford

The London premiere of the new Clash documentary, The Rise and Fall of the Clash, took place in the Clash’s Notting Hill spiritual stomping ground in a cinema that had ‘popped up’ under the Westway flyover so mythologized by the band. Screening the film here, just a few days before what would have been frontman Joe Strummer’s 60th birthday added further poignancy. However, a large guest list meant a hundred or more Clash fans were turned away which somewhat undercut the organisers’ attempts to evoke the W11 DIY ideals of the band. (Although I’m sure there were guest lists in the punk era and that ticketless fans didn’t always see ‘the back door’ ‘open up’!)

For those of us lucky enough to get in, there was ninety minutes of drinking time before the film started (and ninety plus minutes when it had!) – I therefore offer the caveat that what follows is less a review than it is a discussion of the impression the film left on me. Although the documentary does work as a whole narrative, it is definitely a film of two halves. The first half rehearses what is by now a well told story, but enlivens the detail in a number of ways. We get inside insights about the band’s dynamics from the guy who handled security for the Clash and there is interesting exposition of the background role of band impresario, Kosmo Vinyl. Director, Danny Garcia also makes good use of formal devices to present stills that accentuate the fore, middle and background of the frame in a way that emphasises the growing schisms between band members. On the other hand, some nice (previously unseen?) footage from the famous (late ’78/early ’79) London Lyceum shows is spoilt by syncing it to the studio version of The English Civil War. Even a live version from a different gig would have been better.

But it is the film’s second half detailing the ‘Mk II’ death-agony of the Clash’s ‘fall’ that makes the biggest and most important contribution to the popular cultural discourse around the band. It is the first time that the fag-end of the band’s life has been documented in a filmic way. Whereas original band members are thin on the ground in this film, the recruits of 1982 and ’83 (drummer) Pete Howard and (guitarists) Nick Sheppard and Vince White (who along with Strummer and Paul Simonon made up the Mk II five-man Clash) all feature at length. It would seem the 1984 Get Out of Control Mk II Clash tour was ironically titled as all three attest to how they were coerced and ill-treated by manager, Bernie Rhodes. But the very different personalities of the three musicians mean we get different interpretations of the events of 1984-85. Nick Sheppard, who had been in the Bristol based punk band, The Cortinas, comes across as one of the film’s real stars – an authentic punk rocker who wanted to be part of the Clash for all the right reasons. Howard, who, it amusingly turns out, was anything but a punk rocker and White, who pretty much admits to being a chancer, seem more to have been trying to ‘bum a ride on the rock and roll rollercoaster’ than incite riots. But it is Vince White who appears to have been most traumatised by the whole experience. White’s book, Out of Control: Last Days of the Clash (published, 2007) details his discontents yet the film shows that he still has a lot to get off his chest. I have to admit that I felt a little disconcerted watching White swigging wine from the bottle and literally breaking down in front of the camera. Shooting the interview with White outdoors (as opposed to the interior spaces in which Sheppard and Howard are interviewed) seems to amplify his desperation to be heard publically and to explicitly elicit his disposition to collaborate in his own exploitation.

On a more upbeat note, the live versions of the Mk II Clash songs such as Three Card Trick and This is England remind us that the LP, Cut the Crap, needn’t have been such a disaster. The latter song has a lovely lead guitar part that, for reasons probably known only to Bernie Rhodes, was lost in the studio. There is also some nice footage of the 1985 UK busking tour that testifies to the fact that the Clash’s flame never quite went out.

For me, however, best of all is the film’s coda. From the ashes of the Clash implosion we fast forward nearly twenty years to Acton Town Hall to see Joe reunited with his Clash comrade, Mick Jones, at a benefit gig to support a trade union struggle of which I was a part. It is the perfect ending to Garcia’s film because, in a way, ‘Acton’ was the last Clash gig! There are some great (previously unseen) shots of Joe backstage at Acton. He looks on top of the world.

The 10th anniversary of the Acton FBU benefit is marked on Friday 16th November at the Tabernacle, Powis Square, London W11, with the Men they Couldn’t Hang, Tymon Dogg, Take the 5th (Clash tribute), DJ Barry ‘Scratchy’ Myers and special guests. For information and tickets go to www.armsaloftinactontown.co.uk

Bio Mark Bedford,

Since completing his MA in History at London Metropolitan University in 2007, Mark Bedford – who was a fire fighter in the London Fire Brigade between 1992 and 2006 – has lectured at a variety of Further Education institutions. He currently lectures in sociology and history at Amersham and Wycombe College. He has also written on film and music for a number of publications.

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