There’s something undeniably powerful about the first time you hear one of the great bands in rock & roll history. When I saw Wayne’s World for the first time and thereby heard Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” for the first time, I was forever changed and became a lifelong fan of Freddie Mercury and the boys. The same can be said for any number of other bands for any number of you reading out there. It’s a lightning in a bottle moment. The new film London Town, which had its world premiere at LA Film Fest on Friday night, is all about that moment for a young, working-class kid from a broken home. That it also happens to be 1978 London and that band also happens to be the Clash just adds that much more gravity to the situation.
That period of time in England was a tough one: Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Revolution was ramping up and many white citizens were angry at immigration in its entirety. You also had dangerous conflicts between the punks–who were generally pretty left-leaning–and the skinheads–who decidedly were not. During all of this, the Clash were becoming, as they dubbed themselves, “the only band that matters.” It’s a very fertile time to set your narrative and even though the story doesn’t really delve too much into this window dressing, it’s all part of the experience.
London Town follows a 14 (soon to be 15)-year old kid named Shay (Daniel Huttlestone) living in the suburbs of London with his Scottish father (Dougray Scott) and his precocious little sister. Shay is good in school and has learned piano at the behest of his father, who owns and operates a piano store when he’s not driving a cab to make ends meet. Shay’s free-spirited mother (Natascha McElhone) took off when the kids were very young, and Shay gets invited to stay with her for the summer, even though he has a heap of familial responsibilities due to her absence. On a trip to the city, Shay meets a young punk girl named Vivian (Nell Williams) who introduces him to the music of the Clash.
After his father gets badly injured while moving a piano and has to remain in hospital for weeks, Shay is forced to work at the store and drive the cab on his own to try to keep everything afloat. He still manages to go to London to meet Vivian and see the Clash perform, and first encounters the band’s charismatic leader, Joe Strummer (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). From there, Shay and Strummer keep running into each other and form a strange friendship while traversing the dangerous streets of London. And Shay is forced to learn some things about life when he takes his sister to stay with their mom, whom he has always idolized for following her dreams. Dreams v Responsibility: Dawn of Adulthood.
London Town, directed by American filmmaker Derrick Borte after an 8-year trudge to get the project off the ground, definitely has an energy that most films of its kind do not. That has everything to do with actually getting access to the Clash’s catalog and being able to re-record the songs with Rhys-Meyers and a group of musicians emulating the band. (They must not have been okayed to use the names of the Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, or Topper Headon, because they’re credited as “Clash Band Members.”) Rhys-Meyers does a very admirable job of embodying the energy of Strummer, and straddles the line between the real man and the sort of guardian angel figure he is in the narrative. Scott, McElhone, and the young actors all turn in fine performances as well, often brilliant.
Where I think the movie falters a bit is that the story of the kid growing up and the larger cultural story of the Clash’s impact on a country sliding further into conservatism never really melds into one narrative the way the film seems to think it should. A punk character is revealed to be related to one of Thatcher’s top rhetoric-spewers and it seems to exist only for some kind of tension to occur. Shay gets caught up in some riots surrounding Clash concerts but it doesn’t seem to have an impact on the plot too much, other than the all-purpose “toughening him up.”
Those little quibbles aside, it’s hard not to enjoy London Town for its mixture of bittersweet comedy-drama, excellent performances, and the use of several of the Clash’s best songs of the era. A little bit of hokum in a rock & roll story isn’t a bad thing at all.
Two hours before the premiere, the film was bought by IFC Films for distribution, so you’re very likely to get to see it sooner rather than later. And if you’re like me, you’ll immediately dial up Story of the Clash on your iPod and listen to it all the way home. Such is the power they had and still have.
Image: Dutch Tilt Film