The Grammy-winning 2000 film, The Clash: Westway to the World, is a fascinating look at the rise and fall of one of history’s greatest rock bands. The Clash didn’t invent punk rock–bands like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols preceded them–but they did their best to reinvent it, moving beyond the self-absorbed nihilism of the Pistols to embrace a more global, politically engaged ethos that moshed together a riot of musical and cultural influences, including reggae and rap. Perhaps no one was more responsible for injecting those influences into the punk subculture than the man who made this movie, Don Letts.
The British-born son of Jamaican immigrants, Letts ran a clothing boutique in West London in the early 1970s that became an early gathering place for punk rockers. He later became the resident DJ at the first punk nightclub, The Roxy, at a time when there weren’t many punk records out, so he played a lot of reggae. And he started recording the scene. ”When the punk rock thing happened in about 1976,” Letts later recalled, “the whole ‘Do It Yourself’ principle came into play. All my mates picked up guitars and I wanted to pick up something too, but the stage was kind of full up. So I picked up a Super 8 camera, and using the ‘DIY’ principle, taught myself to become a filmmaker through filming the bands I liked and working out how to do it as I went along. I’d never been to film school; I never even read the instructions for the camera!”
The raw, unpolished footage was edited together in 1978 and released as The Punk Rock Movie. Letts went on to make all of the Clash’s videos, and in 1981 when the Clash played their legendary 17 nights at Bond’s International Casino in Times Square, Letts was commisioned by the band’s mercurial manager, Bernie Rhodes, to make a documentary. As music journalist Chris Salewicz writes in his book Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer, “after each night’s show he’d be handed a wedge of dollars by Bernie and told to buy more film.” Unfortunately, Rhodes then placed almost all of Letts’s footage in a storage facility in New York and forgot to pay the bill. The exposed film was thrown away.
So when Sony later approached Letts to put together The Clash: Westway to the World, he had to make do with other archival footage and interviews. In the interviews, the members of the band are characteristically sincere in their assessment of why the band disintegrated. When Mick Jones formed Big Audio Dynamite in 1984, Letts was invited to join the group. The man who brought reggae to punk still couldn’t play a musical instrument, so he introduced film-editing techniques to the music. He became an early pioneer of sampling, using audio clips from old movies and other sources. “When the others would be laying down their parts in the studio,” Letts later said of his days with Big Audio Dynamite, “I’d be running what was tantamount to a film festival in the green room.”
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