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New rock films document Neil Young solo, Clash breakup

Joe Strummer of The Clash at the Palladium in New York City on March 30, 1980.

Rock ’n’ roll artists, as we all know, can take dramatically different paths. Two new rock movies open this week, illustrating just how strangely divergent these paths can be. One is a glimpse at Neil Young mellowing into a solo act full of sweet nostalgia and spiritually enlightened songs, while the other is a tense, retrospective look at punk pioneers the Clash as they crumble and dissolve amid widespread bitterness and disgust.

Titled “Neil Young Journeys” and “The Rise and Fall of the Clash,” they debut in Boston a day apart. The Young film, directed by Jonathan Demme (his third film documenting Young) opens Friday at the Kendall Cinema, while the Clash opus is a one-night stand Thursday at the Regent Theatre in Arlington, where director Danny Garcia will conduct a Q&A afterward. It’s sure to be entertaining and maybe a little heated — some people still have strong feelings about the Clash, even though they broke up 27 years ago after a meteoric, hyper-manic run.

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Neil Young as seen in "Neil Young Journeys" a documentary film directed by Jonathan Demme.Declan Quinn/Sony Pictures Classics

The Young movie finds him playing a laid-back but brilliant 2011 solo show at Toronto’s Massey Hall, where he also played a famed gig in 1971 that finally came out a few years ago as a live CD. Young also reminisces breezily about his boyhood in nearby Omemee, Ontario, where he drives around and chats about his old fishing hole, school, and the local reverend’s house.

The Clash documentary, on the other hand, is a compelling but edgy tale of the band’s still-angry, mudslinging “soap opera,” to quote director Garcia in a recent phone interview from his home in Barcelona. More on that conflict in a minute.

Not surprisingly, the Young film will get better distribution and has already garnered a wealth of advance promotion. Young and Demme (who directed “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Philadelphia,” as well as the first-rate concert movie “Stop Making Sense” about the Talking Heads) have a formidable track record. Their first film together, “Neil Young: Heart of Gold,” in 2006, portrayed a Young concert at the old Grand Ole Opry site, the Ryman Auditorium, in Nashville, soon after he recovered from a brain aneurysm. Their second, “Neil Young Trunk Show,” bowed in 2009.

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This new one, unlike the Nashville concert, which was a special, one-time event, is simply the last stop on a tour backing his “Le Noise” album last year. “With ‘Heart of Gold,’ we staged that for the movie,” Demme recently told Marshall Fine of Hollywoodandfine.com. “That show was never a tour. We had a costume designer and rehearsed it the way we would stage a show, with a visual script design for certain shots. It was completely hand-crafted. This film was inspired by an existing show, with us coming in to film it.”

The music is a mix of Young classics (“Ohio,” “Down by the River”) with newer tracks from “Le Noise.’’ The sound is astonishingly well-recorded (diehard Young fans will exult in that), and he plays a lot of solo electric, distortion-laced guitar that shows why he has been dubbed “the Godfather of Grunge,” topped by some prepared, Daniel Lanois-produced sonic effects from the CD.

“Solo electric guitar has a different character when it’s married to a hall with the right acoustic resources,” Young also told Fine. “I had prepared sound from the album, so it was bionic, but still organic. The sound was bigger than life. I wanted to do the new songs, but also songs from my life. So there were seven from that (newer) album and eight songs from my life. I thought they could tell a story. I tried to think of it more as a play than a concert.”

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The Clash busking in 1985.

Some of the tour’s normal song order was changed in the final editing of the film, so Young ends up peaking with one song that was moved to the end, “Walk With Me,” a tribute to his wife of many years, Pegi. “I don’t want to be on this journey alone,” he sings poignantly. The overall result — of both the concert footage and the personal recollections as he drives in his 1956 Crown Victoria car to the show — reveals a contented soul who has endured conflict but has reached peace and self-fulfillment now.

Just the opposite of the Clash.

“The Rise and Fall of the Clash” is a head-first plunge into conflict and chaos. It’s not a rosy story, but it’s an essential one for Clash completists who wondered what the heck happened to their favorite band after it conquered the world in the late ’70s and early ’80s at the height of the punk era. The concert footage is extraordinary — from early clips of the Clash tearing it up at London’s 100 Club (previously unseen footage) to the Roundhouse, the Lyceum, and on up to New York’s Shea Stadium, where Mick Jones sings the hit “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” Alas, the fall was just as dramatic, but has not been as well-covered until now. There have been previous Clash movies such as “Westway to the World” and “The Future Is Unwritten,’’ but they have not delved much into the last years.

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“A lot of people don’t know about that later era,” said director Garcia. “A lot of people think they were finished when Mick [was fired], but they were around for another 2½ years with replacement players.”

It’s an ugly story that resembles a VH1 “Behind the Music” episode times 10. Clash guitarist Jones and manager Bernie Rhodes (who Garcia said had worked with Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren and even named the Sex Pistols) originally put the Clash together. But Garcia noted that the Clash was a “fabrication.” Unlike U2 or the Beatles, for example, whose members knew each other as kids, the Clash was a created band.

“Bernie chose [bassist] Paul Simonon for his looks because he looked like David Bowie,” said Garcia, adding that Rhodes also told the Clash to write songs about “politics and not about love.” The Clash wrote some of the great political punk of all time — from “I’m So Bored With the USA” to “Police on My Back” — but they couldn’t sustain any unity. They ended up kicking out drummer Topper Headon because of drugs. Several spokesmen in the film suggest that the Clash should have taken time off to let Headon enter rehab (he is clean and sober today), but Rhodes insisted that the band keep touring and get another drummer right away.

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Eventually, Jones was pitted against Rhodes, singer Joe Strummer, and Simonon, so his days were numbered. His last gig was in California at the US Festival, where the Clash were paid $500,000. Jones recalls in the film that “there was a punch-up at the end, then Paul [Simonon] jumped in.” Meanwhile, the Clash unfurled a banner at the end of the show that said “The Clash is not for sale!” By then, however, it was clear that the band was being co-opted by the system, other spokesmen say in the documentary.

The shock of the film is how raw the emotions still are. Rhodes and Simonon wouldn’t talk on camera (though Rhodes is thanked in the credits and Garcia said he was shown the script and approved it), but Jones speaks of how out of control the scene became. “It’s still a painful era for him,” said Garcia. And when Strummer finally realized they had made a mistake and should invite Jones back, it was too late because Jones had joined another band, Big Audio Dynamite. Strummer even went to Nassau, rented a bike, and rode around for three days to find Jones, only to be rebuffed.

The later replacement members of the Clash — drummer Pete Howard and guitarists Vince White and Nick Sheppard — vent an incredible amount of anger at how they were treated. White says they were only paid a little over $300 a week. It’s sad punctuation to the legacy of a group that was once praised in the press as “the only band that matters.”

Getting this film made at all is quite a coup for Garcia, who simply defines himself as a Clash fan. Now 41 years old, he first fell in love with the band at age 9 by listening to his older brother’s records. “I also remember riding on my bicycle and singing the chorus to the Clash song ‘Spanish Bombs,’ ” said Garcia, citing a Clash song about the Spanish Civil War. “And I thought then, ‘You will remember this moment all your life.’ ”

His film won’t get the attention of “Neil Young Journeys,” but it’s well worth investigating if you care about the history of rock ’n’ roll. If you miss it in the theater, it will be out on DVD this fall.


Steve Morse can be reached at spmorse@
gmail.com.