‘London Town’: Film Review

London Town Still Exclusive - H 2015
Courtesy of Dutch Tilt Films

London Town Still Exclusive - H 2015

Smells like sugarcoated teen spirit.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays the late great Joe Strummer in a coming-of-age drama set in 1979 London.

Like the guest star in a Very Special sitcom episode, Joe Strummer is the guy who saves the day for the teen protagonist of London Town. Derrick Borte’s valentine of a drama clearly believes in the curative power of rock ’n’ roll, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers delivers a creditable cross between punk avatar and working-class hero as the Clash frontman. But the raw vigor and protest of punk get co-opted by the movie’s coming-of-age story; it’s not the heartfelt sweetness that’s the chief problem, but how run-of-the-mill and derivative the plot is.

The rock-fueled feature, which opens stateside a few days before its U.K. premiere at the London Film Festival, will likely find its steadiest spotlight in day-and-date digital venues.

Working from a screenplay by Matthew Brown, Borte sets the sociopolitical stage with an evocative opening-credits sequence of archival news footage — the edgiest part of the film. It’s 1979, the dawn of the Thatcher era, and Britain is roiled by unemployment and racial tension. In the suburbs of London, Shay (Daniel Huttlestone) is about to turn 15 and feeling trapped by domestic responsibilities. Since the departure of his aspiring-singer mother (Natascha McElhone), who’s living a boho life in the city, he’s been helping to raise his 6-year-old sister (Anya McKenna Bruce). He also helps out at the piano shop that his tough but not unreasonable father (Dougray Scott) is trying to keep afloat while moonlighting as a cabbie.

Then Shay hears The Clash — first on a tape from his mum, who advises him to play it very loud, and then from the slightly older, more rebellious and with-it girl he falls in love with. Vivian (Nell Williams) invites him to see the band at a club, introduces him to the grungy wonders of Camden Town and, crucially, teaches him to drive after a serious accident puts his father out of commission. It’s while he’s behind the wheel of his dad’s taxi that he first meets Strummer, drunk and fleeing the cops. The encounters between fan and idol grow increasingly contrived and filled with heartwarming lessons as the two become friends, culminating in an unconvincing eleventh-hour rescue of sorts by the punker.

Meyers, who’s already proven his rock prowess as Elvis Presley and as a Bowie-esque glam star in Velvet Goldmine, has more exuberance than snarl as Strummer, in keeping with the movie’s general mood. His vocals are commendable, particularly in a rehearsal version of “Clampdown.” (Music producers Steve Jordan and Steve McLaughlin generate some grit in the film’s half-dozen Clash songs.) The other members of the band have no lines of dialogue; they’re there to complete the image — which finally, is all Strummer’s presence in the story amounts to.

In his third big-screen performance, Huttlestone (Into the Woods) conveys Shay’s innocence and awakening, even as the screenplay travels a well-worn path. He’s persuasively dazzled by his mother and then, predictably, becomes her scold. Though McElhone lends nuance to the role, her character is the most obviously two-dimensional in a film that never gets beneath the surface.

It’s as though the precisely art-directed period detail serves to cushion the characters from the turmoil at the edges of the story. While Borte includes skirmishes with the anti-immigrant National Front, which certainly gives the film a contemporary resonance, those elements finally feel like another form of the colorful wallpaper that lines Shay’s house. (The director also incorporates footage from Rude Boy, a 1980 fiction-documentary hybrid featuring The Clash that the band disavowed.)

London Town is not a film about The Clash. It aims to explore the groundbreaking band’s effect on people’s lives. That’s a worthy premise, but Brown and Borte only go through the motions. Strummer’s role in Shay’s story — to wrap it all up nicely — could have been filled by any fictional musician, not the immortal who spat out such stingingly sarcastic lines as “And after all this, won’t you give me a smile?”

Distributor: IFC Films
Production companies: Dutch Tilt Film in association with Killer Films, Culmination Productions, Vandermolen Film Company, Headgear Films, Kreo Films 
Cast: Daniel Huttlestone, Dougray Scott, Natascha McElhone, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Nell Williams, Tom Hughes, Anya McKenna Bruce
Director: Derrick Borte
Screenwriter: Matthew Brown, based on the screenplay The Untitled Joe Strummer Project by Kirsten Sheridan, Sonya Gildea
Producers: Sofia Sondervan, Christine Vachon, Tom Butterfield  
Executive producers: Alastair Burlingham, Charlie Dombek, Lee Vandermolen, Aross N. Berman, Alex Cutler, Steve Knox, Matthew Brown, Scott Lochmus, Angel Chen, Dennis Mykytyn, Luke Daniels, Jeff Rice, Matthew Lamothe, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross
Director of photography: Hubert Taczanowski
Production designer: Laura Ellis Cricks
Costume designer: Angela Billows
Editor: Brian Ufberg
Composer: Bryan Senti 
Casting: Cara Beckinsale, Celestia Fox

Not rated, 93 minutes