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New Doc Explores the Clash's Dismal End Times

The Clash's last lineup: Vince White, Paul Simonon, Joe Strummer, Nick Sheppard and Pete Howard.
The Clash's last lineup: Vince White, Paul Simonon, Joe Strummer, Nick Sheppard and Pete Howard.

The Rise and Fall of the Clash Directed by Danny Garcia Shout! Factory, 90 mins., $13.98

In the interest of truth in titling, the "Rise" in this DVD could have been eliminated, as this rock doc details the ramshackle demise of "the only band that mattered." And to that end, makes for a more interesting dissection on the least-looked at period of the Clash story, the wayward final years.

Director Garcia assumes viewers already know about the band, so (thankfully) eschews regurgitating their origins and development and starts with the Clash at their commercial peak. It was the heady days of 1982 and Combat Rock, the "Rock the Casbah" video, headlining the US Festival and opening stadium shows for the Who. But it was the beginning of the end.

Fearing that the band had gone complacent, and with the sacking of drug-addled drummer Topper Headon -- no trips to rehab or time off for healing in those days -- singer/guitarist Joe Strummer instigated two events that would kill the band.

The first was the reinstatement of controversial but heavily influential manager/Svengali Bernie Rhodes, alternately called "an asshole" and "one of the unsung heroes of music management" by the talking heads on the DVD. The second was the shocking firing of band co-founder and main music-writer Mick Jones.

In their quest for "complete control," Rhodes, PR man Kosmo Vinyl and Strummer (with placid bassist Paul Simonon), sought to restructure the band to its angry roots, adding three new and younger faces to the lineup.

And while the touring did well as fans came to hear the back catalogue, 1985's electronics-soaked Cut the Crap was so dismal it didn't even make the on the Clash career-spanning box set issued last year (though "This Is England" was a band highlight in any era). It was as if the three surviving classic-lineup members wanted it purged from the discography. And then it was over.

Garcia scores something of a coup by getting new interviews with Mick Jones and original (and latter-day) drummer Terry Chimes, along with the usual coterie of friends, fans, music journos and contemporaries. Strummer, Headon and Simonon are seen/heard in previous interviews.

But the real revelatory storytelling here is from those three "substitute" members, drummer Pete Howard and guitarists Vince White and Nick Sheppard. Seemingly decent guys and good musicians thrown into an impossible scenario, they were part of a band on its last legs, one beset by infighting and questions about direction, fashion, music and political posturing.

Howard, White, and Sheppard -- regularly dismissed in Clash bios and DVDS -- are brutal and unsparing in their assessment of both their treatment and unfulfilled wishes for what could have been had it been more of a "real group."

In the contemporary interviews it's White, the punk hired as much for his attitude as his playing, who cuts the most tragic figure. Clearly boozing while he's talking, his emotions run the gamut from wonder to anger to sadness and despair when recalling his memories.

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"We had come into this huge band, and they put us on these [slave] wages, like 150 quid a week," he says. "I could sell my ass on the street for more than that!"

Much of this was at the behest of Rhodes, who clearly comes off as the villain of the piece although Garcia does include some snippets of a phone interview where he defends himself. But while it's easy to cast him in this way, he could not have amassed the power and influence in the band that he did without the willingness of his employers.

Like a lot of these semi-authorized documentaries, the rights to actual Clash music proved out of the budget. So we get only snippets of actual songs, lots of concert video with no audio, and a reliance sometimes on the same video-clip photos.

Nevertheless, The Rise and Fall of the Clash sheds a lot of light onto the band's least-chronicled period, and director Garcia (who also wrote a companion book) should be lauded even by fans who dismissed the "Fake Clash." The band eventually ground to a halt in 1986.

Joe Strummer lived with the guilt of being the cause and instigator for the band's demise for decades. And just when it seemed something could happen, after he and Jones shared the stage for the first time in 20 years at a charity gig with the band's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame imminent, Strummer died of a heart attack in late 2002, just months before the ceremony.

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