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the pathetic caverns - movies by title - Westway to the World

eclectic reviews and opinions

Westway to the World

2000, D: Don Letts

DVD, 2002

It's a little hard to say how I would have felt about this Clash documentary if I had seen it before Joe Strummer died, but I didn't, and as a result it hit me like a hammer to the forehead. Archival footage from almost every period of the Clash's history is included (the film wisely ignores 1985's Cut the Crap, which featured only Strummer and Paul Simonon of the "real" Clash). Some of the live and studio material is phenomenal. It also features interviews with Simonon, Strummer, Mick Jones and Topper Headon. The DVD adds extended interview clips, which are often very revealing and sometimes changes the context of the quotes as used in the film, and also adds a rough cut of the abanonded 1982 "Clash on Broadway" project (much of the footage found its way into "Westway.")

With longtime Clash associate (and later Big Audio Dynamite member) Don Letts at the helm of this project, it's no surprise that it never takes an adversarial position toward the band, and it doesn't deflate any of the myths, or address the inherent contradictions of the band: which is it, art-school punks or street-toughs living in squats? But still, if they were never really "the only band that mattered," they were surely one of the ones that mattered most. And the film's inside position doesn't mean it that it doesn't offer some remarkably affecting moments.

Perhaps most wrenching is the haggard Headon confessing that he was "out of control" and "lost the plot" Headon clearly blames himself for the disintegration of the band, and he's probably right (even though there was also a great deal of friction between the other members). It's painful to watch him grapple with that knowledge.

Many of Strummer's interview moments are surprisingly candid, as when he confesses that the Clash, depsite their ardent leftist political posturing, didn't really have any great answers, only questions. And his enthusiasm for Sandinista! in all its ragged, messy glory, as a document of a very particular time, place, and assemblage of people — even as he says that it might better have been a double, or single, album — is touching.

I don't want to slight the contributions of the eternally puckish Simonon. I could listen to stories about things like him setting Lester Bang's pants afire for hours, and Mick Jones offers thoughtful comments and reminisces too. Likewise, I'm delighted by any footage of Bill Price, the genius engineer who helped birth London Calling (and, incidentally, Never Mind the Bollocks). But it's Headon's pathos and the intrinsic sadness of Strummer's passage that dominate.

"Westway" is definitely not targeted towards newcomers to the band; I don't think (manager) Bernie Rhodes' name is ever spoken in full; it's always Bernie this and Bernie that. Likewise, little context is given for people like Sandy Pearlman (who did a great job producing Blue Öyster Cult, but was a puzzling choice for the Clash), or Guy Stevens (famous for his work with Mott the Hoople, another odd matchup, but also a veteran of several projects with Bill Price). I don't think that's much of a criticism, given the Clash's status in the annals of punk rock, and even someone without a lot of previous knowledge of the band should good a sense of what the excitement was all about, even if some of the names are a little obscure.

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