SXSW FILM 2010
By JP Chapman | March 25, 2010
Director: Don Letts
“Joe Strummer? Never heard his music….don’t know much about him-but that’s not what Strummerville is all about…”. This sentence-uttered in one form or another by virtually every band featured in Don Letts’s Strummerville, arouses in me (as well as likely any music fan that would view this film) the utter disappointment that Strummerville is. In what was intended to be a post-mortem tribute to the great legacy of Clash frontman Joe Strummer, Strummerville instead acts as a meandering mess that only serves to demean the remarkable legacy left by one of the most important figures of modern popular music.
Primarily consisting of interviews and live performances of young bands, Strummerville, tells the story of how/why the Strummerville Foundation was established in England by friends and family of Joe Strummer in the wake of his death. Spearheaded by Joe’s wife Lucinda, a few close family friends, as well as artists like Damien Hirst, Billy Bragg, and Don Letts, the Strummerville organization exists to give bands a fighting chance to record, rehearse, and gain a level of exposure previously afforded to them by record labels, but that is now largely absent thanks to the changing nature of the recording industry. Additionally, the Strummerville foundation makes a direct effort to connect with and help out bands that are in a greater amount of need financially and emotionally. The Strummerville film serves as yet another “leg up” the foundation is offering these new bands, as it introduces the audience to not only their music, but also their back-stories.
While this is a truly noble organization, and is a great way to honor the memory of Joe Strummer, one can only hope that the actual foundation is not as poorly pieced together as the Strummerville film. I think I need to take a moment to give a little personal background on Don Letts and The Clash in my life. The Clash have been one of the most important bands in my life thus far, making a huge impact on me both as a musician, and as an appreciator of art. Accompanying this love of The Clash, I have a huge amount of respect for Don Letts, both as a musical artist/influence on The Clash, and also as a filmmaker. His documentary Westway to the World stands up to this day as one of my favorite music documentaries of all time. Needless to say, I headed into the screening of Strummerville with high hopes.
Probably the biggest warning sign heading in was the fact that the organizers for SXSW almost gave a disclaimer prior to the film starting, making us all fully aware that this was one of the only films that they had not screened prior to submission in the festival. Rather, they had seemingly admitted it based solely on the reputations of The Clash and Don Letts. Shortly into the film, SLSS founder Dave and I both exchanged sentiments that perhaps they should have screened it first…
Strummerville does virtually everything that you don’t want a documentary to do. Led by jarringly distracting narration by Letts himself, it jumps haphazardly from band story to band story, seemingly only tying everything together with the name of Joe Strummer himself. Due to this method of organization, the viewer is left with nothing to emotionally hold on to or connect with. On top of this problem, we’re also faced with bands that are uninteresting and hold little respect for the benefactor that is essentially funding their careers. As mentioned at the beginning of this review, the bands sadly don’t even hold enough respect to look into the music of The Clash or Joe Strummer, something that is incomprehensible to me not only as a music fan, but also a human being (who would accept a bunch of money and not even say thank you/look into who gave it to you???). Had Letts tied these meandering stories together, the film may have stood a chance. Instead, the viewer is left with an unintelligible film that leaves you empty and regretful for wasting time on it. I walked into Strummerville with high hopes, and had it as one of my most anticipated films of the SXSW festival. However; I walked away with it being the biggest disappointment of the entire fest.