Entertaining if unexciting, “Westward to the World” offers a fair overview of the career of the Clash, probably the most widely successful group to emerge from punk’s first wave. Authorized portrait offers some interesting input from former bandmates, but lacks outside critical distance, as well as a vivid sense of the singular cultural moment from which the band rose and thrived within. Feature-length “director’s cut” is 20 minutes longer than previously released (in 2000), hourlong DVD version. It’s getting a first U.S. theatrical run at S.F.’s Roxie Cinema.
Essentially a talking-head chronological narrative illustrated by wealth of archival footage (variable in audio/visual quality), pic briefly traces members’ youths, first meetings via art school and squatting, preliminary formation as the 101’s, and finally the Clash’s birth in the Sex Pistols’ wake in 1976.
Regrettably, there’s no on-screen input from Bernard Rhodes, whom band members admit had a huge, Brian Epstein-like influence on their rapid rise. By Jan. ’77, they’d been signed by CBS. Intriguing bits include the band’s unanimous hatred of veteran mainstream producer Sandy Pearlman’s handling of soph disc “Give ’em Enough Rope,” despite its classic status. Brilliant two-disc followup “London Calling” is too briefly dealt with, while bloated three-disc “Sandanista!” (1980) finds all members now regretting its undercooked excesses.
Late arrival to the group Topper Headron, longest-lasting of several drummers, became a heroin addict — and he still looks to be the most ravaged of latter-day interviewees. Drug problem added to unit’s dissolution even as it recorded “Combat Rock,” a quintessential sound-of-band-breaking-up disc that nonetheless rocketed the Clash to new levels of global stadium-rock stardom via singles “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” Notably, no mention is made of the last “Clash” disc, 1985’s “Cut the Crap,” which was pretty much a solo project by Joe Strummer, who passed away in December.
There’s no insight into principals’ private lives, or even much grasp of individual personalities. While one can understand an authorized portrait’s desire to stick to career essentials and avoid gratuitous dirt-dishing, “Westward” is perhaps too catalog-oriented, to the exclusion even of discussing much of this famously agitprop band’s political leanings. The kind of multidimensional sound-and-its-era docu afforded, say, the Who in “The Kids Are Alright” or the Sex Pistols in several features is bypassed here.
Ultimately, “Westward” works best as visual liner notes for fans already well acquainted with the Clash and its history.
Tech aspects are solidly handled.