Joe Strummer and the Clash Make a Kid's Day in the Indie 'London Town'

A teenager learns about life from his punk idol Joe Strummer, and Jonathan Rhys Myers kills it as they rock the Casbah together.

London Town is a romance that takes place during a defining moment in history -- the time in late-'70s England when the punk scene was personified by vagabond youths living in "squats," skinheads, the Sex Pistols with their "Anarchy in the U.K.," and the Clash. The latter's "politicized lyrics, musical influences from reggae, dub, funk, ska and rockabilly, and overall punk consciousness," says director Derrick Borte, "all make for a great backdrop to telling this story, just as they did at the time they originally released that first record."  

The story is told through the eyes of Shay, a teenage boy who goes to London to find his estranged mother. In the process he falls for a young punk girl named Vivian, who introduces him to the Clash, and he even crosses paths – and befriends – his idol, Joe Strummer (an excellent Jonathan Rhys Meyers).

While London Town is not a musical per se, it is about the power of music and its ability to change people. And it has a lot of great music in it. Six Clash songs – "White Riot," "White Man in Hammersmith Palais," "Clash City Rockers," "Clampdown," "London’s Burning," "Police & Thieves" – and numbers by the Buzzcocks, the Stranglers, Toots and the Maytals, Willie Williams, Psychedelic Furs and Stiff Little Fingers.

"Something everyone can identify with in this film is the power of music to change your life." -- director Derrick Borte 

Earlier this year at the L.A. Film Festival, the director told Fandango a story about finally, after eight years of prepping production, getting not just the OK but wholehearted cooperation from Clash representatives to use a number of crucial songs for the film's soundtrack. "We were relieved," he said. "What was going on at that time, with all the social upheaval – the National Front, the skinheads on the right, and the rise of punk rock on the left. It was a time when music was about making change.

The director, promoting the film at LAFF (credit: Clinton Wallace)

"Something everyone can identify with in this film is the power of music to change your life. Everyone has that first song, that first record that changed their lives, Experiencing the power of music, often as a teenager – the importance of telling this story through the eyes of a teenager. The Clash's first record was what made that change for me. I would listen to it over and over again in the same way as Shay does in the film.”

The IFC Films release also stars Dougray Scott, Natascha McElhone and Tom Hughes. It opens in select theaters October 7 and will also be available on FandangoNOW

Joe Strummer Facts

From left: The classic members of the Clash -- Topper Headon, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, Joe Strummer, 1979

  • Birth name: John Graham Mellor
  • Born: August 21, 1952, Ankara, Turkey
  • Died: December 22, 2002 (aged 50)
  • Best Known For: Give 'Em Enough Rope (1978), London Calling (1979), 1982's Combat Rock. Formed in 1976 with guitarist Mick Jones, bassist Paul Simonon, drummer Terry Chimes and guitarist Keith Levene, the band’s politicized lyrics, musical experimentation and rebellious attitude had a far-reaching influence on rock, and the punk scene’s rebellious, anarchic spirit. 

Jonathan Rhys Myers really got into the Joe Strummer character

Meyers sings all of the Clash songs that he performs in the film.

"The scenes of Jonathan and Daniel [Huttlestone, as Shay] onstage and backstage were amazing to shoot, because Johnny really captured the spirit of Joe,” said Borte. “The first encounter was in the concert. The dynamic between the two of them – the scene in the rehearsal studio. Ray Gange, a Clash cohort who has a role in the film, said the scene took him back to the first time Joe brought him to the rehearsal space to meet the guys. He was so moved by it. To see that from someone who knew Joe, that was touching."

Rhys Myers said, "Joe Strummer is a kind of fairy godfather figure to our lead character, a young boy called Shay, who is discovering himself, going through sort of an identity crisis. So he decides to go to a Clash gig. He happens to meet Joe and they have this mentor-student type relationship... they do a bit of time together and they have an interesting relationship."

The Shay character, he says, reminds him of himself. "I was about 15 years old, into UB40 and Toots and the Maytals and like that when I came to the Clash. It was kind of liberating. The Sex Pistols had kinda broken down the wall, so the Clash had an audience there that was just begging for something that is tasty."

Producer Sofia Sondervan said that no one else was ever considered to play the role of Joe Strummer. "He could have been his twin brother," she says. "I was talking to people like Matt Dillon, who was a friend, and Jim Jarmusch, who directed Joe in Mystery Train, they all had this primal relationship with Joe. What I noticed was, he was an influence on everybody – whether it was that they shaved their head or he left a beer bottle in somebody's car and they never got rid of that beer bottle."

Getting the Band Together: "This Is Not a Biopic"

The producers always agreed that this was a movie with punk-era London as the setting only. "It's more interesting to do something about people being influenced than a straight biopic," said Sondervan.

Said Borte, "The scenes that feature the band were at the top of the list as far as what needed meticulous attention to detail. From casting them, to the sets, to how they were shot, every step of prep was about remaining true to the Clash."

That meant getting a band together and having rehearsals where all the players got to know each other before an inch of film was shot. "One of the fun parts of the whole project is the rehearsals. Johnny and I put this band together and built the relationships. There's a street in Soho that has a lot of music shops in it and we walked up and down that street recruiting the members of the band" said Borte. "It was a conscious decision to put a band together and spend a lot of time in rehearsal."

And that extended to Rhys Myers performing the songs.

"I didn’t want Johnny to be lip-syncing to original recordings of the Clash. I felt like that could go horribly wrong. Knowing he was musically inclined and could sing, as he has in a few films, I wanted to record him actually singing and the band actually playing the songs."

Through The Eyes of a Child

To the filmmakers, it was important to tell the story from the POV of a teenager who is discovering himself as he discovers the realities of the world around him.

"I always felt like the most interesting thing about the Clash was the music and its influence on people. The music transcended the band. I remember the moment I heard that first Clash album the first time, and it changed my life. It always made sense to tell this story through the eyes of a young boy, and one that was experiencing all these things that were also influencing the music," said Borte.

Casting One of the Originals

Ray Gange, who plays a bouncer in London Town, portrayed a roadie in in the 1980 film Rude Boy.

Before Rude Boy, Gange worked in a record shop in London's Soho district. He met Strummer in a pub when Strummer lived by Regent's Park. After learning about the film and receiving Strummer's own invitation, Gange agreed to take the role of Rude Boy. He would go on to form a record label, manage a band, work as an artist and tour as a DJ with bands like the Alarm and Dropkick Murphys.

London Town will be released in select theaters and available online October 7.

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