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Don Letts
The Clash
Not Rated.

Widescreen 1.78:1/16x9
English Dolby Surround
English, French, Spanish

Runtime: 80 min.
Price: $19.98
Release Date: 4/30/2002

• “Clash On Broadway” Documentary
• Exclusive Interview Footage
• Photo Gallery
• Discography
• Weblink


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The Clash: Westway to the World (2000)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Back when I was in high school, I had a friend who insisted that the Sex Pistols were the only true punk band. Though he stretched his point a little far, in a way I agreed with him. The Pistols so heavily embodied the genre that most other acts that fell under the umbrella simply felt like variations on their theme.

That doesn’t mean that I discounted the music of the other bands classified as punk. Actually, some of these groups were stronger than the pistols. Their main competition came from the Clash, and the fact remains that they were a much better band than the Pistols. Whether or not they truly should be called “punk” stands as a semantics issue, I suppose. The Clash were much more skilled musicians - almost too good, in fact, to sit in the same tree with their punk brethren. The Clash showed chops far beyond those of most competitors, and their music represented a diversity that left the other three-chord wonders in the dust.

Again, whether one wants to consider the Clash as a punk band can be a subject for debate. I don’t. Too much of their music diverged from the genre’s norms, and frankly, they were too good; their accomplished playing seemed a little too tight when compared to the awkwardness of most other punk groups.

However one wants to define the genre, I will argue that the Clash were the best band to emerge from the punk scene. The Pistols flamed out quickly, and that was probably a good thing. Had they stayed together, I doubt they would have shown much musical growth, and they likely would have quickly developed into a parody of themselves. John Lydon’s (nee Rotten) career with Public Image Ltd. did little to convince me that he lacked a great deal of musical talent, and I doubt the Pistols would have mustered much success once their initial impact faded.

The Clash, on the other hand, actually improved with time, at least to a degree. Over their few years together, they produced five full-length albums. (Actually, a sixth exists, but it merits an asterisk - I’ll discuss that later.) They hit hard with their debut, 1977’s The Clash, but misfired for the most part on their follow-up, 1978’s clunky Give ‘Em Enough Rope. However, the Clash rebounded brilliantly with the next record, 1979’s double-album London Calling. Some may prefer the sheer energy of the debut release, but I think Calling blows away the Clash in almost every way. A true tour de force, Calling showed the band at their most self-confident and at the top of their game; the 19-song record maintained a ridiculously high standard of material and I think it stands as one of the greatest rock albums ever made.

On the heels of that extravaganza, the Clash got really experimental. 1980’s Sandinista! offered a three-album release and strayed farther and farther from the band’s punk roots. Instead, they favored reggae and more dance-oriented sounds much of the time. Sandinista! was a true hit or miss affair; some parts of the album worked well, but unlike Calling, it really would have succeeded better as a shorter release. Still, one had to admire the audacity of the group.

From there, the Clash achieved their commercial peak with 1982’s Combat Rock. Boasted by hits “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” and “Rock the Casbah”, Rock finally gave the band a real popular profile in America, but unfortunately, the record itself was something of a dud. The Clash seemed to be treading water creatively and they quickly started to disintegrate. Drummer Topper Headon got the boot mid-year due to a drug problem, and friction within the group increased. They made their last live appearance at the huge US Festival in the spring of 1983.

However, while guitarist Mick Jones went on to decent success with the rap-influenced Big Audio Dynamite, guitarist Joe Strummer tried to keep the Clash going. He and bassist Paul Simonon lassoed a couple of new players and put out Cut the Crap in 1985. It stiffed, and this new iteration of the Clash didn’t last very long. Strummer and Jones co-wrote most of the band’s songs, and it looked like Strummer needed Jones more than the reverse, since BAD managed to become reasonably successful. (Note that Jones was the first founding member to split the band; Headon didn’t come on board until after the release of The Clash, and they featured no consistent drummer until they got him. That’s why the cover of The Clash just shows the three guitarists but no drummer.)

And that was all she wrote. Though the Pistols reformed for a surprisingly effective - though commercially unsuccessful - tour in 1996, the Clash remained on the sidelines, and that doesn’t appear likely to change anytime soon. However, in the late Nineties, all of the four main members of the Clash participated in a project to document their history. Directed by band friend - and member of BAD - Don Letts, Westway to the World provides an 80-minute course in the brief but bright existence of the Clash.

Westway functions like most other documentaries of this sort. It combines still photos, album cuts, live snippets, and those recently created interview clips. In addition to the four band members - Strummer, Jones, Simonon and Headon - we hear from journalist Tony Parsons, photographer Pennie Smith, former drummer Terry Chimes, road crew member Johnny Green, and producer Bill Price. All of the interviews were filmed expressly for Westway, and all of the participants sit alone; this means we never see the members of the Clash interact, unfortunately.

Frankly, I don’t how whether any bad blood still exists between the group, but it would have been interesting to see them chat with each other. Nonetheless, the footage we find works quite well. The story follows a linear and chronological pace, with a couple of potential exceptions. New subjects are introduced via title cards, and the appropriate dates are indicated as well. Midway through the film, we’re well into 1978 when we’re told some events - such as a Rock Against Racism concert - took place in early 1977! I’m fairly sure these were mistakes and the occasions actually occurred in 1979; it makes no sense for the program to suddenly jump backwards two years for those experiences.

Anyway, despite those small errors, Westway largely went along a logical path, and we hear about all manner of interesting events. The movie truly follows the band from beginning to end - sort of. While we clearly learn of how the Clash came to be, we don’t find out all the facts about their eventual dissolution. Once Jones leaves the band in 1983, the program ends; we get no discussion of the faux-Clash of 1985. Personally, I agree with this decision in a way. Without Jones, the Clash no longer existed; because Strummer and Simonon decided to pretend he was expendable doesn’t make that so. The Cut the Crap Clash were a sham.

Nonetheless, Westway should have at least mentioned the continued existence of the Clash, even if it really was just in name. The omission of the post-Jones years makes Westway look somewhat incomplete, even if I do agree with the decision from a purist point of view. (For the record, in the supplements, we do find a mention of Cut the Crap, but that’s the only place you’ll hear of that record.)

I could pick a view other nits, such as the fact that the program makes it look like the Clash headlined at Shea Stadium in 1982. That wasn’t the case. They supported the Who during the latter’s now-laughable attempt at a “farewell” tour. While the Clash definitely were at their most popular in 1982, they were nowhere near successful enough to play such a large venue; even an arena would have been a stretch.

Nonetheless, overall I really enjoyed Westway. Although the program seemed too brief - 80 minutes simply isn’t enough time to summarize the band’s entire career - it offered lots of good information and did so in a brisk and entertaining manner. While the live clips and photos were fun to see, the interviews really stood as the main attraction. Obviously, not all the participants were created equal, and we heard mostly from the band themselves. Even within that realm, some members dominated. Logically, we got the least amount of information from Headon, since he joined last and left first. After that, I think Jones was the second least-talkative member. While he added a fair amount of material, he wasn’t always the most forthcoming person; Jones occasionally seemed more like a PR man than an honest interview subject.

The remaining two were more useful. Simonon offered a certain working class charm as he provided some good nuts and bolts data about the band. Strummer was easily the star of the show, though. He seemed extremely engaged and provided a witty and provocative presence. Strummer helped make Westway a success.

Westway packed in a slew of live material. Unfortunately, none of these appeared in their entirety. We saw snippets from almost 30 songs, but they only offered pieces of varying lengths. An expanded version of the documentary with longer live material would have been preferred, though I think I got enough of the Top of the Pops version of “Bank Robber”. When the band didn’t play the show, they ran the song accompanied by female dancers. It’s extremely goofy and amusing. (Note: the DVD includes the “director’s cut”, which offers a longer version of the program. I haven’t seen the shorter one so I can’t compare, but I’d imagine it’s really rushed.)

Westway to the World provided a fairly solid look at the short but bright career of the Clash. It covered them from origins to demise and did so with wit and charm. It seemed too superficial and rushed at times, but I still liked it quite a lot.

The DVD Grades: Picture C- / Audio B- / Bonus B

Westway to the World appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.78:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Due to its variety of source elements, Westway provided a very erratic image. Although it remained watchable, the picture was fairly drab.

I mainly based my grade mainly on the interview segments, as it didn’t seem fair to rate all of the scads of archival footage. To be sure, the latter usually looked pretty bad. Occasionally, some live material appeared fairly strong, such as a performance of “Complete Control”. However, most of these segments showed many flaws, something that we had to expect from older footage shot on extremely cheap equipment. I didn’t regard this as a problem, really; it’d be nice to see higher-quality archival material, but I certainly didn’t expect it.

However, the interviews looked surprisingly bland. The absence of 16X9 support seemed odd, given the dimensions of the image, and the picture showed some concerns that an anamorphic transfer might have rectified. Sharpness usually seemed adequate, though some mild softness interfered at times. I detected occasional examples of jagged edges and moiré effects, and light edge enhancement seemed apparent periodically. For the interviews, source flaws were minor, though I noticed a moderate amount of artifacting.

Colors offered a minor aspect of the interviews. They came through mainly via clothes, but most of the garb lacked much spark. Those hues appeared fine, but the archival stuff usually provided fairly thick and dense colors. As for black levels, they seemed similarly decent but unspectacular, and shadow detail was clear but unexceptional. Ultimately, Westway always remained watchable, but the presentation demonstrated a number of inevitable flaws.

The Dolby Stereo 2.0 soundtrack of Westway to the World seemed superior but not anything special. Not surprisingly, it offered a fairly restricted soundfield. The track remained heavily oriented toward the front, and most of the audio seemed monaural in nature. Some of the music spread out with decent stereo imaging, but that occurred mainly due to the album versions of tunes. When we heard live renditions, they tended to stay in the center channel; a couple - like “Complete Control” - displayed basic stereo, however. Effects offered almost no material, as music and speech dominated. The surrounds never contributed anything more than general reinforcement of the music, but that was fine for this kind of program.

Audio quality appeared acceptable. Dialogue always sounded nicely natural and distinct, with no issues related to edginess or intelligibility. Due to the various sources, the music seemed erratic. Studio recordings showed good clarity and range, and they seemed to replicate the original material well. Archival audio was much more problematic, but I expected that it didn’t see it as a real problem. Overall, the sound of Westway seemed adequate for the material at hand.

In the extras department, Westway includes some nice pieces. Most significant is the Exclusive Interview Footage. In this area, we locate additional footage from all four members of the Clash. With a total running time of 44 minutes and 45 seconds, we start with Strummer and then go through segments with Simonon, Jones, and Headon. Strummer’s part lasts longest, at 16 minutes, 30 seconds, while Headon’s is the briefest; it goes for only six and a half minutes. Some minor repetition occurs, but most of the data seems new. None of it is revelatory, but it’s largely entertaining and useful, and it helps flesh out the main program in a positive way.

Next we find Clash On Broadway. No, this doesn’t offer a concert performance - not totally, at least. Instead, it provides a 22-minute and 25-second montage look at their 17-show residency in New York during the spring of 1981. Mostly it shows various visuals without a narrative, as we see the band and the setting. We watch short interview bits from Strummer and Headon plus live snippets of “London Calling”, “The Guns of Brixton”, “Charlie Don’t Surf”, “Radio Clash”, and “Safe European Home”; note that the latter shows the band playing it live but overdubs the album version. “Broadway” seems too disjointed to be terribly interesting, but it seems like a good extra for the DVD.

The Photo Gallery appears as a running two and a half minute piece. Accompanied by parts of the dub mix of “Rock the Casbah”, this section includes some great shots. Unfortunately, it’s hampered by moderately flawed execution. Not only does it cut short the song, it also won’t allow you to pause the video or rewind in any way. This makes it impossible to examine various shots to the level desired. It’s still a good collection, but it should have offered a more “user friendly” presentation.

In addition to a weblink for a Westway to the World site, we find a Discography that helps compensate for the flaws found during the picture gallery. It lists 12 different Clash albums, starting with both the US and UK versions of The Clash and progressing through 1999’s live release, From Here to Eternity. These entries show track listings but offer no other specific information about the albums.

However, in an extremely cool touch, each album provides one song - in its entirety! That means we find 12 full songs presented here: “Garageland”, “Clash City Rockers”, “Safe European Home”, “London Calling”, “The Magnificent Seven”, “Rock the Casbah”, “This Is England”, “Should I Stay or Should I Go”, “Broadway”, “Radio Clash”, “I Fought the Law”, and “Remote Control” (live). That creates its own little “greatest hits” collection for you, which seems like a pretty terrific bonus.

In the “nice touch” category, note that “Broadway” and the interviews all include subtitles. You can watch those programs with English, Spanish or French text.

While Westway to the World won’t go down as a classic documentary, it does offer a fairly good look at the Clash. We learn about their start and progress through most aspects of their brief time together, all of which appears via entertaining and compelling interviews and music clips. The DVD provides erratic but acceptable picture and sound plus a good compilation of supplements. Clash fans will definitely want to own a copy of Westway to the World, while others curious about the band should find it to be a good starting point.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.7058 Stars Number of Votes: 17
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