Filmed in 1978 and released the following year, Rude Boy captures the Clash and its fanbase right before the band shifted gears away from their punk background and released London Calling, their cross-genre masterpiece. Spliced between the 17 (!) full-length performances is the lolling narrative of Ray (Ray Gange), a dole-cashing, sex-shop employed yob who serves as the band’s roadie during a brief jaunt through Scotland. Ray’s story is the stuff of an Afterschool Special, metonymic of Britain’s youth falling prey to alcoholism and dangerous right-wing ideology, and is filmed in a minimalist, yawn-inducing verité style. The “Just Play The Clash” special feature, which cuts out the dramatic scenes and just shows the concert footage, is a welcome one.
While it’s no artistic tour-de-force, Rude Boy makes good some two decades later as an insightful depiction of punk’s collapse. Unlike Derek Jarman’s overly romantic though admittedly inventive Jubilee, which gleefully celebrates punk’s hedonism to the point of tedium, Rude Boy tackles the movement’s innate hypocrisy. Ray sports a Bob Marley T-shirt and cruises London’s streets to the tune of Junior Marvin’s “Police And Thieves,” but spouts crude support for the National Front party, an extreme right-wing group that is depicted early in the film at a hateful rally (“You’re nothing but filth, scum, and not fit to be on this earth…We don’t even want you to walk our streets!”). Ray drunkenly humiliates himself onstage at the Clash’s explosive performance at Rock Against Racism’s Anti-Nazi League Carnival and lamely engages in a political argument with Joe Strummer in a pub that is little more than a plea for employment.
Seen today, the film may seem comical in its representation of an attention-starved naïf, but for a film shot in 1978, it’s a very sharp critique of a self-congratulating subculture that celebrated inarticulateness and clad itself in swastikas. The Clash were one of the first, and certainly the loudest, voices to contradict punk’s nihilistic “No Future”-agenda, and that their version of a cash-in road movie a la The Kids Are Alright addresses these concerns is careful, sharp, and defiant—just like their records.
The performances are all top-notch, even the often-bemoaned version of “White Riot” sung by Sham 69’s Jimmy Pursey (a Strummer-led, more hectic version of the song is included as an extra on the DVD). On the interview tracks, Mingay mentions that he’d shot concert films before, but you could’ve fooled me. During the musical numbers, the cinematography feels like someone figuring out his skills as he goes along: long takes bridged erratically by short takes, few establishing shots, shaky hand-held close-ups, all of which is clearly the result of a struggle to capture the band’s raucousness and unpredictability. Perhaps not the depiction the Clash deserved, Rude Boy‘s sense of inexperience—though perhaps affected—is a fitting representation of the band right before their peak.