In an era where CBGB can be reborn as a themed restaurant at the Newark airport, and Iggy Pop’s musical accounts of heroin dependency can soundtrack cruise ship commercials, it’s not such a far leap to imagine the music of the Clash and the squalor of punk squats in pre-Thatcherite London serving as the backdrop for a sweetly lighthearted teenage coming-of-age tale. But that doesn’t make it any less strange.
Such is the gauntlet thrown down by Derrick Borte’s “London Town,” which follows a bright-eyed 15-year-old named Shay (Daniel Huttlestone) as he struggles to deal with some tough times in the summer of 1978, finding solace in the music, and the person, of Clash frontman Joe Strummer (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). To be sure, the film has plenty of qualities to recommend it: Meyers’ portrayal of the punk godhead is studied and exacting, from his diction to his epileptic guitar-playing style to his chipped front tooth; Borte incorporates impressively specific visual cues from actual footage of the era in staging the live music scenes; and Huttlestone’s guileless earnestness in the lead role goes a long way toward finessing some of the story’s more sentimental confections.
Yet the combination of a cuddly narrative with one of the grittiest scenes in rock and roll history ultimately goes together like cotton candy and Schlitz, and the people most likely to seek the film out – Clash fans lured by the ample music (both original cuts and re-recordings by Meyers) – are likely to be its toughest critics. Picked up by IFC Films on the eve of its LA Film Festival premiere, “London Town” has a pleasant sheen and a deep bench of notable producers, but it’s hardly a can’t-fail proposition.
Clad in bright sweater-vests and bellbottoms, Shay is the bullied runt of his nowhere London suburb, taking care of his little sister (Anya McKenna-Bruce) while his Scottish dad (Dougray Scott), runs a piano shop by day and drives a taxi by night. Shay’s mom Sandrine (Natascha McElhone) recently abandoned the family, alighting to London to live in the world’s most urbane punk flophouse, and Shay is struggling with his new responsibilities. On a train ride into the city one day, he meets cute with a tart-tongued scenester named Vivienne (Nell Williams), who takes him on a little tour of the city and plays him the Clash on her headphones. Instantly enamored of both the band and the girl, Shay spends his savings on a copy of the band’s self-titled debut, as well as a ticket to meet her in a few weeks at a Clash concert.
(One of the film’s most charming scenes shows him rushing home with the record and cuing up “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” over and over, both because he likes it, and because he needs to learn the words in time to impress Vivienne. A stickler might note that this particular song was not actually on the original U.K. release of that album – appearing on a U.S.-specific edition in 1979 – but it’s an endearing sequence all the same.)
Before Shay can make the show, his father is seriously injured in a piano-moving accident and left near-comatose, and Shay is abruptly thrust into the role of paterfamilias. Over the next few weeks, he tries to stay one step ahead of suspicious neighbors and bill collectors; raises money driving his dad’s taxi, dressed as a woman to disguise his age; tracks down his flighty mum, who’s attempting to launch her own music career; and forges a relationship with Vivienne.
Oh, and along the way, he keeps running into Joe Strummer, who shows up to dole out helpful advice when Shay most needs it, like a less magical-realist Humphrey Bogart in “Play It Again, Sam.” The film – written by Matthew Brown from an earlier version by Sonya Goldea and Kirsten Sheridan – never goes too far turning Strummer into the father-figure mentor that a sappier script might make him (he still gets to be a drunken punk), but it’s an inorganic way to thread Shay’s journey in with the band’s story. Or rather, Strummer’s story, as his three bandmates have scarcely any lines and are credited as simply “Clash Band Members.”
Faithfully portraying the original punk scenes on film is tricky. Unlike the more shamelessly nostalgic older baby boomers, who tended to cast every single concert, acid test, and happening they stumbled upon in the late-’60s as a society-shaking revelation, punks always had a healthy mistrust of idolatry and self-congratulation. From the Sex Pistols’ “no future” refrain to the Clash’s own early mantra, “no Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones,” the genre’s overarching ethos makes any straight-ahead, triumphant biopic of its key figures inherently suspect, so Borte deserves credit for at least trying a different tack.
But one can’t help but notice the pulled punches, from the fleeting half-glimpse of drugs to the lack of palpable danger, even when gangs of National Front skinheads start crashing the scene. The story of the Clash is a fascinating one, and spotlighting a kid inspired by, but not a part of, the punk milieu has plenty of potential. But “London Town” just never burns brightly enough.