TV Review: 'Rebel Truce: The History of the Clash'

10:12 PM PST 12/07/2010 by Tim Goodman
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The Clash released six albums from 1977-85, including the three-LP set "Sandinista."

There’s plenty to enjoy for fans, but the punk legends deserve a more thorough doc.

For fans of the Clash, it will be incredibly hard to keep two competing emotions at bay — fist-pumping adrenaline and crushing depression — while watching a documentary about “the only band that mattered.”

Rebel Truce: The History of the Clash tries valiantly but insufficiently to capture the bottled lightning, vitriol and passion that the Clash represented. The U.S. premiere of the documentary on BBC America certainly ignites long-lost (or at least tamped-down) rushes of punk rock’s furious necessity, its youthful outrage and that staggering wonder of watching Mick Jones, Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon tear into “White Riot” or “London Calling.”

In those moments you simultaneously want the world to be a better place socially and politically, to tell everybody to piss off, to go out and buy a guitar, to dive off a stage into a mosh pit and, unsurprisingly, to kill Jack Johnson or Coldplay.

But then you have to face any number of difficult facts. For starters, the Clash representsa bygone era. Punk rock is long over in its original incarnation (as well as the big-issue rock the band tackled in succeeding years). Rebel Truce holds up the Sex Pistols, the Clash and, to a lesser extent, the Buzzcocks as the trifecta of punk on the other side of the pond, as the Ramones and Patti Smith (and others, of course — though not seriously noted) were on these shores from roughly 1976 to the early ’80s. Leave it to others to hash out when punk started and died;all you really need to do in watching Rebel Truce is look at Jones’ nearly bald head and aging features to understand that life happens in the blink of an eye. One moment you’re in the garage with your bullshit detector, the next you’re in a documentary like some Ken Burns subject your parents remember fondly.

If that doesn’t depress you, then being reminded again so viscerally that Strummer is dead ought to do the trick. And, told chronologically, Rebel Truce lands awkwardly on Cut the Crap, the horrible album (save for the song “This Is England”) produced without drummer Topper Headon, who had been sacked for drug use, and founder Jones. No real Clash fan even mentions the existence of the album or “that group of people” as a band that could be called the Clash, but hey, a lot of endings are tragic. Rebel Truce also is peppered with aging rock writers, scenesters and music peers recollecting the old times, etc. — and all of a sudden you might find yourself feeling brittle on your couch, getting nostalgic about a band that was over and done with by the mid-’80s. That’s not exactly uplifting.

And yet the Clash produced so many great songs and had such an impact on that era that watching some of the rare footage from Clash producer and co-conspirator Don Letts sends chills throughout your body. At such times, it becomes clear where Rebel Truce falls short (and well short of the Letts’ documentary The Clash: Westway to the World). Although the presence of Jones — soft-spoken, wry, with a combination of nostalgia and clear-eyed judgment — gives the documentary its center, other surviving members Simonon and Headon are nowhere to be found. That’s a misstep.

There’s also not much from Jones about his momentous fallout and departure from the band. Nor are there any archival quotes from a post-Clash Strummer discussing the band. Equally important, only snippets of songs are used, which doesn’t give curious newbies any sense of why die-hard fans might be crying tears in their beers or honking into tissues upon watching this.

For a certain segment of people, the Clash were better, deeper and more important than the Sex Pistols and represented a seismic step away from the past — away from the adoration of the Beatles or Stones. They went beyond punk poses and wrote anthems of street rage and some damned good rock songs (tinged with everything from reggae to hip-hop and beyond).

But history shows that period to be all too brief. These days, the Stones — whom a sneering young Strummer calls “rubbish” — are still touring. Jones wears his age haggardly, and Headon looks a little like Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad (though Simonon, no surprise there, still looks hip). Meanwhile, they’re making Broadway plays out of Green Day albums, and a lot of people remember only “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”

If the Clash was indeed “the only band that mattered” — and a lot of good bar arguments can spring from that — then a more thorough documentary is deserved.

Airdate: Sunday, Dec. 12 (BBC America)
Production: Belfast 14 Prods., Bill and Ben Prods.
Producer: Benjamin Timlett
Director: Alan G. Parker

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