Film Review: London TownJonathan Rhys Meyers is cool as Joe Strummer, but his few appearances and the use of The Clash’s music isn’t enough to save a generally bland coming-of-age story with poorly written characters.
It’s hard being a punk in the 21st century, since filmmakers keep reminding them how much better things were—at least for their music scene—back in the ’70s with films like London Town, which isn’t the Joe Strummer biopic some might be hoping for, but rather a film that shows The Clash’s influence on the youth of England. Sort of.
Set in 1979, London Town instead tells the story of 15-year-old Shay (Daniel Huttlestone from Les Misérables), who lives with his cab-driving father (Dougray Scott) and younger sister after their hippie mother (Natascha McElhone) deserted them to move to London. Shay gets into the music of The Clash when his mother sends him tapes with her irregular letters, bolstered by meeting a cute young punkette named Vivian (Nell Williams), but when his father is injured, Shay is forced to find a way to support his family.
It’s a good 25 minutes before we even see Joe Strummer, as played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, via a spectacular performance by his band, but Strummer isn’t seen again until Shay has a number of far too coincidental encounters with the Clash front man. During Shay’s attempts to drive his father’s cab to earn a wage, he one night picks Strummer up without knowing it’s him (despite being obsessed with The Clash—which seems odd). He meets Strummer again a short time later when they’re both arrested by the police during a riot; when they’re released, the singer invites Shay to band rehearsals where the band plays him “Clampdown.” (Again, also not very likely.)
Rhys Meyers was so good playing a Bowie stand-in for Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, and he’s also quite good as Strummer, especially during the musical performances, but sadly, there just isn’t enough of him, as he’s clearly just there to be used as a plot device to move Shay’s story forward.
The film is directed by Derrick Borte, who helmed the equally bland suburban comedy The Joneses but is working from a script that isn’t written well enough to make the characters particularly compelling, with dialogue so contrived most of the conversations ring false.
There’s an opportunity for London Town to really get into the nitty-gritty of working-class London life and the politics surrounding it during those times, but it squanders that potential to instead focus on Shay’s journey to find his mother, leading to McElhone performing a tragic (as in bad) version of The Only Ones’ “Another Girl, Another Planet.” There are definitely some touching moments between Shay and his parents, but it leads to Shay trying to get Strummer to show up and perform at the opening of a music store and a moment in time you just know never happened for real.
In a year with so many great coming-of-age films—particularly John Carney’s Sing Street—a movie like London Town serves very little purpose, maybe because its attempts to tie Shay’s story into that of Strummer seems so hard to fathom. When it ends with the unsettling credit “Based on the screenplay for ‘The Untitled Joe Strummer Project,’” you start to wonder why the movie even has Joe Strummer in it at all except to sucker Clash fans out of their hard-earned cash.
When there have been so many better punk-rock movies actually about the musicians—Sex and Drugs and Rock ’n’ Roll and Control are two examples—London Town just feels underwhelming in how obviously it flounders.
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