Sunday, January 28, 2007

"There's Room For Everybody, You Know."

Only this week did I learn about the existence of a new Julian Temple-directed documentary about the life of former Clash frontman Joe Strummer. It just premiered at Sundance to a pretty good reception and as a fan of Strummer and his work, not only with The Clash but with his later band the Mescaleros, I can't help but be interested. While I'm not a Clash fanatic like some, you'd have to be an idiot to not acknowledge that Strummer and his compadres were truly one of the greatest rock bands of all time and had a profound effect on rock music that lingers to this day. Strummer's life and career is certainly a story worth telling and apparently Temple's film contains a great deal of footage taken at the very beginning of of Strummer's career, as Temple (who also directed THE GREAT ROCK 'N' ROLL SWINDLE) was one of the first documentarians of the British punk scene and had access to pretty much everyone. I can't wait to see it, but I also can't help but think that Temple's film, no matter how good it is, might pale in comparison to an earlier Strummer documentary that hasn't seemed to gain the attention it deserves, one that I might even go so far as calling one of the best rock documentaries of all time, Dick Rude's LET'S ROCK AGAIN.

Like Temple, Rude was a friend of Stummer's who decided to document Strummer's 2001 U.S. tour with the Mescaleros, who had just released their second album together, the magnificent GLOBAL A GO-GO. Having taken the bulk of the 90s off to relax and raise a family, Strummer returned the find that the music world didn't care about what he had to say and even though his name meant that he could always fill a concert hall, everyone wanted to hear the old Clash hits and ask about a Clash reunion. The Mescaleros sound much more of world music influenced than punk (although Strummer would still play some of the Clash hits in concert) and were starting to really find their rhythm as a band. But sales of the first Mescaleros album were disappointing, so Strummer did all he could to raise awareness of the new effort and his new band, of which he was immensely proud. We see Strummer conducting interview after interview, meeting with fans everywhere, and, in one remarkable sequence, standing outside on the Atlantic City boardwalk handing out self-made flyers to uniternested passers-by (only one of whom recognizes him) and then barging in unannounced on the local classic rock station to talk up the show (which looks pretty packed). How much of this is for show and how much it is genuine is really hard to say (I think Strummer may have done it just for fun), but what is undeniable is Strummer's passion, drive, and belief in his music, his band, and his convictions. If the rest of the world doesn't care that this band is out there making this excellent music, that's their fucking problem.

LET'S ROCK AGAIN's greatest strength is that Rude just lets Strummer run the show and we see that the saint so many made him out to be after his passing may not have been that far from the truth. Time and family may have mellowed him a bit but the fire was still there and we see it in several exciting concert sequences throughout the film (which also shows what an superb group of musicians the Mescaleros were). Strummer is always front and center and is a commanding presence through every scene of the film. Filming ended in the fall of 2002 after a tour of Japan and Strummer's unexpected passing gives the film a sense of sadness that is impossible to miss. When it's all over you feel like Strummer was a truly great guy, someone you wish was your friend, and a man who lived by the courage of his convictions because he couldn't do it any other way. Clash/Strummer fan or not, if you love rock 'n' roll then you must see LET'S ROCK AGAIN. It's now out on DVD from Image Entertainment and, needless to say, is highly recommended.

* I have two great stories about Strummer that I heard at the two festival screenings where I saw the film. The first comes from Wreckless Eric, who I met at Kier-La Janisse's Big Smash! festival in Vancouver last spring. After the screening, I saw Eric (who was one of the festival's guests of honor) milling about the lobby of the Pacific Cinematheque, looking a little emotional. I asked him what he thought of the film and he told me a story of opening for Strummer and the Mescaleros in Scotland in 2001. Eric played the gig solo, and as he's going through his set who does he see over to the side of the stage playing air guitar along with him and cheering him on but Strummer himself. Strummer later told Eric that he specifically asked to have him open the show (Eric lives close by) and then Eric looks at me and says, "That was the last time I ever saw him". The second story comes from Dick Rude at the Q&A at the film's premiere at the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival, which he told to give an example of Strummer's view of the world. During an interview Strummer was asked by a reporter what were some of the new bands that he liked and much to the reporter's surprise Strummer mentions Third Eye Blind. He explains that they played some dates together and that Strummer thought they were really good guys. The reporter goes, well that may be, but their music is pretty pedestrian, don't you think? Strummer tells him that he likes their music and doesn't see anything wrong with mainstream pop as long as it's good. The reporter gives Strummer a look of, "OK, if you think so", to which Strummer sternly replies, "There's room for everybody, you know?". It's this attitude and this line that I will always associate with Strummer and the next time I hear Third Eye Blind I think I'll give them the benefit of the doubt.

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