Published Apr 25, 2014The past decade has seen a rash of docs purporting to tell the real story of the Clash and their late singer Joe Strummer. They vary in quality (Don Letts' Westway to the World is probably the best), but each of them fails when it comes time to explain the gutting of the group and their slow limp to break-up.
This new film wisely skimps on the early years — we've heard this story told many times and there's very little to add at this point — taking us up to 1981 when former manager Bernie Rhodes re-enters the picture after he was sacked in 1978. Rhodes' re-appearance as the band set to work on what would become Combat Rock immediately causes a rift in the group; Joe Strummer wholeheartedly (and as he'd later admit, naively) signs on to Rhodes' plan to get the band out of debt, while his songwriting foil, guitarist Mick Jones, patently objects.
Fueling tensions is drummer Topper Headon's isolation within the group, which eventually turns to addiction. Headon is booted just as Combat Rock turns "The Only Band that Matters" into "The Biggest Band in the World"-in waiting. And at Rhodes' behest, Jones is the next to go. Headon's replaced by original drummer Terry Chimes, who is in turn replaced by Peter Howard. Meanwhile, Strummer and Rhodes filled Jones' vacant spot with two guitarists, Vince White and Nick Shepherd.
This version of the Clash toured for several years before Rhodes and Strummer set to work on a new Clash record without the rest of the band's input, Rhodes achieving what one observer interviewed for this doc calls his goal of playing in the Clash. The resulting album, Cut the Crap, is perhaps the most universally panned record by a group with an otherwise flawless catalogue. It's regularly written out of the band's history and it was completely omitted from their recent, sprawling box set.
It wasn't until after Cut the Crap was completed that Strummer realized the mistake he'd made placing his trust in Rhodes. One story finds him travelling to Nassau to convince Jones, who had already formed and recorded Big Audio Dynamite's debut, to rejoin the group. Faced with a crap album and a band full of imposters, Strummer quits the band, effectively ending the band's slow fade.
Director Danny Garcia constructed the film out of interviews with band friends, associates and surviving band members, interspersing their memories and opinions with archival footage and images. Garcia tracked down Shepherd, White and Howard, who are rarely mentioned in Clash histories and it's amazing to hear how, even at the time, they realized that they were playing in a version of the band that was a shadow of its former self. Shepherd and Howard brush it off as an unforgettable, if not ideal, experience. But White appears traumatized by his time in the band — he breaks down in tears when talking about the song "This Is England."
Despite its strengths, there's a stench of "unauthorized biography" about this doc. What little music there is comes from live clips and studio outtakes and outside of interviews with Headon and Jones, the people Garcia speaks to feel somewhat peripheral to the situation. Noticeably absent, as he is in most media concerning the band, is Rhodes himself. The manager gets credit for putting the band on their path to stardom, but remains a controversial figure in the band's history. Despite these faults, The Rise and Fall of the Clash deserves kudos for daring to dive into the band's much-maligned later years, properly bookending a heretofore incomplete story.