Don Letts’ “The Clash: Westway to the World” (2000).
An exaggerated attempt is being made here to give a story a beginning, a middle and an end. Which is fine. That’s what story-tellers do. Cruel and misleading excisions are the essence of narrative.
The story, therefore, runs from 1976 to 1983, ignoring the post-Jones incarnation of the band and the Cut the Crap (1985) album that produced it. Instead, we are left with the idea of a band that lasted for as long as it needed to last, which sprang from specific circumstances to conquer the world and, having conquered it, knew it had to leave the stage. The End.
In addition to priceless archive footage, we are provided with extended interviews with the band. Letts himself neither appears nor narrates, but the intimacy and centrality of his presence is evoked through the ease with which people talk. There is a strange tranquility to the film, a contentment that Letts manages to elicit, and a neat (too neat?) sense of a job well done. Sometime it seems impossible to reconcile these people in the darkened interview room with the figures you see cavorting on stage in the archive footage. Like the best punk-era film, the raggedy and blurry quality only adds to a sense of urgency. Just as the best punk bands played with a sense that The Fuzz were about to burst in and beat everyone up, so the best filmed punk is suggestive of the threat of having all the filmed ripped out of the camera and destroyed at any moment.
But if, as Wordsworth argued, “Poetry… takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility” then this film is poetry.
All four of the core Clash seem, in this film at least, like remarkably nice people. It’s a full on charm offensive. Three quarters of them seem healthy and well preserved (sorry Topper). Nobody would imagine, watching this film, that Joe Strummer had just two years left to live. He is, of course, by far the most articulate of interviewees, as well as the most charming (or treacherous if you read some hostile accounts). The way he explains the circumstances of the sackings of Jones and Headon (“maybe you can play the saxophone on heroin but you can’t play drums”), seems reasonable you can even imagine Jones and Headon nodding their rueful assent while he talks.
But what’s best about this film, from a purely selfish perspective (and is there, at the end of the day, any other perspective?) is that it makes no real effort to explain or develop its title. As someone who is currently trying to write something about The Clash and who is fascinated by The Westway itself – this is perfect for me – establishing the centrality of this concrete behemoth while refusing to interpret it. Thank you Don Letts. You were exactly what I needed.