Documentary Viva Joe Strummer: The Story of the Clash Surveys the Career of Rock’s Beloved Frontman

I vivid­ly remem­ber learn­ing the first song my high school garage band cov­ered, The Clash’s “Clash City Rock­ers.” We spent hours deci­pher­ing the lyrics, and nev­er got them right. This was, if you can believe it, a pre-Google age. While the exer­cise was frus­trat­ing, I nev­er resent­ed Joe Strummer’s slurred, grav­el­ly vocals for mak­ing us work hard at get­ting his mean­ing. For one thing, I loved his voice, and as a stu­dent of the blues and Dylan, nev­er real­ly cared if rock singers could actu­al­ly sing. For anoth­er, Strum­mer nev­er seemed to care much him­self if you could under­stand him, though his lyrics blast­ed through moun­tains of BS. This is not because he was an ego­tist but quite the oppo­site: he pas­sion­ate­ly hat­ed rock clichés and wasn’t mak­ing pop records.

The first scene in the doc­u­men­tary above, Viva Joe Strum­mer (lat­er released as Get Up, Stand Up), gives us The Clash front­man decon­struct­ing the genre. “Well, hi every­body, ain’t it groovy,” he says to a cheer­ing crowd, fol­lowed by, “ain’t you sick of hear­ing that for the last 150 years?” The documentary’s nar­ra­tor describes Strum­mer as “the man who put cred­i­ble rock and roll into the bas­tard cul­tur­al orphan that was called punk,” but this seems an inac­cu­rate descrip­tion.

For one thing, rock and roll is itself a bas­tard genre, some­thing Strum­mer always rec­og­nized, and for anoth­er The Clash, fueled by Strummer’s ecu­meni­cal inter­est in world cul­tures, drew lib­er­al­ly from oth­er kinds of music and stuck their mid­dle fin­gers up at estab­lish­ment rock and every­thing it came to rep­re­sent.

Viva Joe Strum­mer gives us loads of con­cert footage and inter­views with band mem­bers and close friends like the Sex Pis­tols’ Glen Mat­lock. The focus remains on Strum­mer, a front­man with tremen­dous charis­ma but also, para­dox­i­cal­ly, with a tremen­dous amount of humil­i­ty. One review­er of the film says as much:

Joe Strum­mer always pro­ject­ed him­self as a hum­ble man. Even at the height of The Clash‘s mega­lo­ma­nia, when he fired gui­tarist Mick Jones, Strum­mer came across like a bet­ter read, more world­ly Bruce Spring­steen. The every­man image has made eulo­giz­ing the singer dif­fi­cult.

This sug­gests that Strummer’s every­man per­sona may have been part of his show­man­ship, but even so, he was respect­ed and admired by near­ly every­one who knew him. And his pro­le­tar­i­an pol­i­tics were gen­uine. As one inter­vie­wee says above, “he always had a cor­ner to fight in. He always had some­one to stick up for.”

The orig­i­nal DVD includ­ed a CD with inter­view clips from 1979 to 2001, such as the 1981 Tom Sny­der Show inter­view above. Viva Joe Strum­mer lacks the pow­er­ful dra­mat­ic arc and tight direc­tion of Julian Temple’s 2007 The Future is Unwrit­ten, but it’s still well worth watch­ing for inter­view footage you won’t see any­where else. Despite the film’s orig­i­nal sub­ti­tle, The Sto­ry of The Clash, the doc­u­men­tary fol­lows Strummer’s career all the way through the dis­so­lu­tion of the band that made him famous and through his suc­ces­sive musi­cal endeav­ors with Joe Strum­mer and the Mescaleros. And it doc­u­ments the reac­tions to his sud­den, trag­ic death in 2002. I still remem­ber get­ting the news. I hap­pened, odd­ly enough, to be drink­ing at the bar where the Joe Strum­mer mur­al would go up in New York’s East Vil­lage in 2003. I walked out­side and lit a cig­a­rette, put on my head­phones, cued up “Clash City Rock­ers,” and shed a tear for the punk rock every­man who every­body loved.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

“Joe Strummer’s Lon­don Call­ing”: All Eight Episodes of Strummer’s UK Radio Show Free Online

Remem­ber­ing The Clash’s Front­man Joe Strum­mer on His 60th Birth­day

The Clash Live in Tokyo, 1982: Watch the Com­plete Con­cert

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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