Rude Boy (1979)

Nineteen year-old Ray, protagonist of Rude Boy, is a walking embodiment of lyrics from the early Clash. He don’t wanna hear about what the rich are doing, and he’s so bored, not just with the U.S.A., but with most other topics too, from his deadbeat job in a porno store (career opportunities don’t knock much in Ray’s life) to his dreary bathroom-stall encounters with girls at punk shows. When he fights the law, the law most certainly wins, hauling him in for drunk and disorderly conduct. All he really wants, it could be said, is to bum a ride on the rock ‘n’ rollercoaster.

Given all that, it’s no surprise Ray finds himself working as a roadie for the Clash. It ultimately doesn’t improve his life much, but it indisputably saves Rude Boy, a muddled mess of a movie redeemed only by the blazing presence of the punk icons. As great as they were, the Clash were never actually the only band that mattered, but they are the only thing that matters here, as the film veers from pseudodocumentary to concert film to convoluted political treatise without much clarity or forward momentum.

Directors Jack Hazan and David Mingay begin Rude Boy with a highly charged conflict between the racist National Front and an anti-racist Socialist march; if it’s less gripping than the similarly real footage in Haskell Wexler’s 1968 classic Medium Cool, that can be forgiven on the grounds that a few thrown rocks do not quite constitute Chicago ’68. The filmmakers even offer a nicely subtle comment on the fetishistic undercurrents of British sexual politics by cutting from the confrontation to a middle-aged white businessman visiting Ray’s shop and awkwardly requesting a magazine featuring black women.

From that set-up, Hazan and Mingay shift focus to Ray (played by non-actor Ray Gange as a modified version of himself), an aimless youth whose only passion is for punk shows (though even there he stands back in the crowd rather than jumping into the Dionysian craze at the base of the stage). Ray’s meanderings owe much to the Angry Young Men who preceded him, but even in the context of neorealist resistance to character-development handouts he remains a nonentity, a blank cipher uninterested in politics, devoid of personality, and less likely to look back in anger than through hangover goggles. The filmmakers never effectively connect Ray to the social turmoil around him, and their attempts verge on the random, with inserted footage of Margaret Thatcher bemoaning dangers to the middle class in coded language that recalls the more overt comments blurted out by National Front activists. Confusing scenes of police arresting young black men (on apparently legitimate grounds), the relevance of which not even the press sheet can adequately explain, also help little.

All of which leaves the Clash. Distributor Epic/Legacy holds no illusions as to why people will buy Rude Boy; an option on the DVD menu allows viewers to “Just Play the Clash”, and the option will surely be used. The directors approach the band with typically heavy hands. The first time we see them, covering Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” in concert, the camera sticks tightly to Joe Strummer’s head, capturing his undeniable intensity, but at the expense of the band as a whole (we don’t really see the Clash in a group shot until 26 minutes in, when they bash out a rousing rendition of “Garageland” in their practice space). Later in the film, when Strummer mentions rude boys in “Safe European Home”, Hazan and Mingay repeatedly cut to Ray on predictable cue, in case the title somehow slipped past anyone.

No directorial bungling can obscure the power of the Clash in action, though. Young, hungry, and in total command of both the iconography and the spirit of rock, the band throws itself into performance with an unironic belief in the ability of music to change the world. Strummer, only two years removed from his days as a pub-rocker, carries himself like (and even slightly resembles) the young Bruce Springsteen. When he heaps scorn onto the careerist punks “turning rebellion into money” in “White Man in Hammersmith Palais”, it sounds like an outrage he just discovered, not a line he sings every night. On guitar, Mick Jones channels glam and arena rock into his energetic moves, strutting and swaggering through big chord changes and solos that remind one that “punk” had yet to ossify into the dogma of hardcore. Rhythm section Paul Simonon (bass) and Nicky Headon (drums) provide a solid bedrock, with the stylish, animated Simonon in particular holding down the reggae roots that inspired the Clash as much as three-chord punk.

Seeing the Clash tear through songs from their self-titled 1977 debut and the great 1978 follow-up Give ‘Em Enough Rope, as the band dances along the cusp of fame, is categorically the sole reason Rude Boy remains in print. The filmmakers offer brief glimpses of the members offstage, but given the nature of the movie, it’s difficult to say just how performative they’re being. Certainly they adhere to their public images: Jones the arrogant rock star, wearing a perpetual and petulant sneer; Simonon the devoted reggae fan (his main solo scene is a nicely peaceful moment of post-concert exhaustion in which he reclines on a bed and sinks himself into a song by the Slickers on a clock radio); Headon the loopy one (who practices his kickboxing on a bemused Ray); and Strummer the earnest rebel. He gets the most and the best scenes, attempting to politicize Ray and belting out a rousing rendition of “Good Times” alone on a piano. One need not join the mad rush to canonize Strummer in the wake of his recent, too early death to nonetheless conclude that, if his scenes here were any indication, he was a thoughtful, down-to-earth, and warm man.

He doesn’t, however, manage to convince Ray that political punk bands are more than “left-wing wankers”, though the best argument the inarticulate roadie can offer against mixing pop and politics (for which Strummer, like Billy Bragg after him, would offer no excuses) is that “it annoys me.” Clearly viewers are supposed to link this apathy to the concluding shots of Thatcher ascendant — a curiously bleak perspective on the ability of the Clash to change minds and affect society. In bonus DVD material, the directors reveal a fundamental lack of interest or comprehension of punk, which might account for that; a charming Ray Gange frankly dismisses the film as incoherent and complains about playing a character with his own name who didn’t really reflect himself (though both real-Ray and film-Ray admittedly worshipped the Clash and “fancied a beer”).

The extras emphasize the main attraction: two 1978 BBC studio performances (including the great “Clash City Rockers”, a song not played in Rude Boy) and some outtakes (the highlight being a blistering concert version of “English Civil War”, though the unbridled energy of “White Riot”, which ends with Strummer literally disappearing into the crowd, compares) reinforce the already established greatness of the Clash. Rude Boy does little more than remind us of that greatness; as such, it’s a cinematic failure but a musical necessity.

The ClashLive Performances & Interviews

RATING 5 / 10