The documentary, made by longtime Clash associate Dick Rude, follows Joe Strummer as he tours with the Mescaleroes, a band he formed after an 11 year period of semi-exile from the music business.
Full disclosure: The Clash were my favorite band ever. Never has a band combined great politics with just being a great band so well.
Throughout the movie, I kept thinking about another documentary, Westway to the World, which was also made by another longtime Clash associate, Don Letts. In Westway to the World, Joe expresses regret that he didn't realize how influential the Clash were-- how many lives they changed.
There's a scene in Let's Rock Again in which Joe goes out to the boardwalk in Atlantic City to stump for the Mescaleroes' gig, handing out hand-printed handbills. He talks about how humbling it has been to play empty rooms at times, and how it's been good for him to go from "hero to zero" as he puts it. In one scene, he sits and talks to some fans and talks about his worries for the sales for the second Mescaleroes album-- the first one had not broken even, and he worries that if the second one does not, the label may not be able to justify keeping the Mescaleroes on their roster.
Strummer clearly appreciated things this time around. In another scene, Joe talks about spending three hours after a show talking to people, signing autographs because, as he says, "Everybody's got a story to tell, and you can't hurry it along, can you?"
The movie is interspersed with live footage of the Mescaleroes playing in Tokyo and New Jersey. There's a couple of very moving montages- young people meeting with Joe after both shows. I would have expected everyone to be in their forties, like me. Instead, most are under 30. I realized that with the Mescaleroes, as with the Clash, Strummer's messages about the problems of the world reached out to people. To quote Joe:
"When you change someone's mind or you change someone's life-- that obviously is a great memory."
Watching the documentary, I realized how great the Mescaleroes were, and how vital Strummer was right to the end.
One last thing haunted me: toward the end of the movie, which was filmed shortly before Strummer's untimely death of a heart defect at the age of 50, Joe encourages people to "go out and buy something weird today"-- not to just take the "things that are shoved to you." You have to go out and find these things; he pointed out that the Rolling Stones formed because Keith Richards saw Mick Jagger holding a blues record-- a record no one else knew about. This was ironic for someone who wrote the lyrics:
You better paint your face
No Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones
He was complex-- a guy who rips on the Stones, yet holds them up as an example of musical greatness brought out by a couple of guys meeting while stepping out of their comfort zones and finding something new. A guy who was the apothesis of punk, but who described himself as a hippy whose values were formed in 1967. A guy who was idealistic, and wanted to change the world by selling records. A guy who was proud of his past work, but not content to rest on his laurels.
I think that Strummer was wary of The Clash and their material becoming nostalgia fodder. But he was also justifiably proud of how well their music has aged, and how their messages are still important. The Mescaleroes did play some Clash-- quite well, in fact. I chuckled rewatching the movie for this post tonight as they played "London's Burning" from the first Clash album, which came out thirty years ago; my 13 year old son had been playing it on his itunes earlier tonight.
Watching this movie, I had an epiphany. Joe talked about people telling him about how the Clash changed their them and their lives. For me, it was different. The Clash didn't so much change me as make me realize I wasn't alone. There were other people who realized that things weren't right, and that you didn't have to conform. Nearly five years after his death, I realize how badly I-- and the world-- miss Joe Strummer. I've mentioned before, in my post about seeing The Stooges in April, how I realized that when I was with punk rockers, I was in my tribe. Though I never met Strummer, his art reached out to me and gave me faith.
This movie is great-- even if you're not a huge Clash fan, you'd enjoy it. Strummer was a very cool guy.
In Joe's spirit, I'm going to make a request of anyone reading this (if you're inclined). Recommend to me (and anyone else reading) a record or song that is not mainstream, that's really grabbed you.