If you’re looking for the definitive story of how The Clash came together, this isn’t the documentary for you. Rather, “The Rise and Fall of The Clash” assumes you know the basic back story and the principal players involved and jumps into the band’s tale as they rose to stardom in the late 70s, became so big that they toured with The Who and played stadiums in the early 80s, and crumbled into ruins by the mid-80s.
While I have been a fan of the band since I was in high school in the late 80s, I wasn’t intimately familiar with the turmoil that ultimately led to their downfall, so I found this film a nice retrospective of that time period. Clash fans I’ve spoken to over the years tend to vilify Mick Jones and paint Joe Strummer as a pure hero, but as the interviews in this documentary illustrate, not everyone saw it that way, and apparently even Strummer at one point saw the error of his ways and tried to get Jones back into the band.
As in life, the truth behind The Clash’s downfall is murky at best — at one point, someone says that Strummer once claimed all of the principal participants in the band’s drama were guttersnipes, i.e., badly behaved children who thought only of their own wants and needs. That’s probably not far from the truth when looking at the careers of many great rock bands.
However, “The Rise and Fall of The Clash” does definitively portray the band’s manager, Bernard Rhodes, as a villain, although the participants tend to differ on the finer points of his villainy. For example, was he just a pathetic Malcolm McLaren wannabe or was he a force in his own right? Rhodes never appears to defend himself, neither in archival interviews nor in contemporary ones, and the film has an annoying habit of using the same couple archival clips of him every time he’s mentioned, including one where he’s eating.
Jones is the only original band member who shows up in the documentary’s contemporary interviews. Strummer passed away in 2002, so of course all his interviews are archival, but drummer Topper Headon and bassist Paul Simonon are mostly absent, save for a few quick archival clips.
However, the guys who later joined the band to replace Jones and Headon have quite a bit to say about their time in The Clash, and much of it is negative, although they have mixed feelings on Strummer’s role in all of it. At one point, one of them mentions that if Rhodes owned the name, he might very well still have a band called The Clash touring the world right now without any original members, since he apparently viewed the group as a brand whose parts were interchangeable. Another becomes very emotional when talking about his experiences and begins to cry.
“The Rise and Fall of The Clash” moves at a brisk pace, covering several years of the band’s history in just 96 minutes. There’s a little bit of narration, but the major beats quickly unfold in a cacophony of competing thoughts from band members, friends, crew members, fellow musicians, critics, and others. Perhaps that style was meant to evoke not only the nature of punk music itself but also the “blink and you missed it” feeling of participating in such a tumultuous period of history, but it would have been nice if some of the moments were allowed to breathe a little bit.
Unfortunately, there are no extras on this disc, which is a shame since most home video release of documentaries have plenty of deleted footage to throw into the bonus features section. Certainly a band like The Clash deserved more than what’s offered in this release.