Musician biopics have been around since the golden age of Hollywood, but Derrick Borte’s London Town is an unusual take on what’s become an increasingly popular genre of movies in the 21st century.
Not a proper biopic, London Town nevertheless prominently features The Clash‘s Joe Strummer as a character, with Jonathan Rhys Meyers playing a fictionalized take on the late punk pioneer. Today, Billboard is premiering an exclusive clip of Rhys Meyers performing the Clash’s “Clash City Rockers” in a clip from the IFC-acquired film.
Despite Strummer’s presence, London Town doesn’t exist to profile the Clash or even the British punk scene itself (although that does prominently feature into the film’s narrative). Rather, London Town is a romantic coming-of-age story centered around 14-year-old Shay (Daniel Huttlestone) as he negotiates his existence between his traditional father and his estranged, freewheeling mother, and as he balances his small-town, working class responsibilities with his big city curiosity (he’s pulled into the punk orbit by his much-cooler love interest Vivian, played by Nell Williams).
As Shay struggles to take care of his younger sister and pursue his interest in the burgeoning punk scene, the film oscillates between moments comical — like the scenes where Shay, too young to pass for a man, dresses up as a woman in order to drive a taxi and make extra money for his family — and serious, such as when he’s beaten down by a cop or when he gets into a fistfight with a white supremacist.
Joe Strummer pops up throughout the film as one of Shay’s cab fares as well as his cellmate following a riotous Clash concert. The recurrence of Strummer at key moments is admittedly improbable, but welcome nevertheless — Jonathan Rhys Meyers nails Strummer’s accent and affectations, and he does Strummer with enough of a smirk that his portrayal never falls into the realm of hagiography, a common problem among biopics.
While the social, economic and racial unrest of the late ’70s U.K. serves as the film’s backdrop, an eclectic, knowledgeable sampling of the era’s music serves as its soundtrack. Obviously the Clash are well represented, with the movie boasting both studio recordings and re-recordings as sung by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who handles the vocals so well you almost forget it’s not Strummer singing on “Clampdown,” “White Riot” and “Clash City Rockers.” Other punk acts like the Buzzcocks and Stiff Little Fingers crop up, and the reggae scene is represented with the inclusion of seminal songs from Toots & the Maytals and Willi Williams.
Touching on everything from working class woes to maternal abandonment to virginity loss, London Town covers a lot of thematic ground — and it wisely doesn’t attempt to wrap up every storyline. But thanks to Huttlestone and Rhys Meyers, the film has a charm, humor and electricity that gives consistency to the hodgepodge of subplots and themes.
London Town opens in NYC and L.A. on Oct. 7; it makes its iTunes and VOD debut that same day.