Given that it is a documentary about the innovative music charity set up by Clash frontman Joe Strummer’s friends in the aftermath of his untimely death in 2002, it’s hard to think of an individual more suited to the task of directing it than Don Letts. This pioneer of punk/reggae fusion was pivotal member of the punk community, a close associate of The Clash, and a member of Mick Jones’ post-Clash band Big Audio Dynamite. Letts went on to direct Westway to the World, the cornerstone film documentary on the subject of The Clash.
Whilst his pedigree is unquestionable and his ensuing direction of Strummerville cannot be faulted, this is neither a film about Strummer nor The Clash. Instead, it is the briskly but efficiently told story of Strummer’s namesake charity, which has grown quickly from its inception in 2003 to greatly increase its remit; beginning with a vague intention to carry on Strummer’s legacy and DIY ethic, the charity has stumbled into vital relationships with other organisations and into the provision of free support and near-free studio time to artists in desperate need of a step up. Avoiding the term “bands” is wise here as before long, Strummerville demonstrates the surprising breadth of musical styles it has supported in its short but productive existence so far.
Whilst a couple of rock bands are featured, one features a rapper and at least as much screen time is given over to a pair of urban grime acts. Letts’ film takes us out of the Strummerville studio and into the streets, into the frequently grim world inhabited by the artists the charity has aided. One segment details how a grime act got in touch with the charity after the mother of a murdered son complained at their hanging around aimlessly outside a business she owned; another segment follows foul-mouthed but enthuasiastic rapper Dekay, explaining how she escaped a brief period of homelessness to end up working with Strummerville. She admits that at that time she didn’t know who Joe Strummer was, but later bought a Clash compilation and became a fan of “Bankrobber” in particular. For some of the musicians the hazards were not those of the mean streets but of the machinations of the ever-fickle and conservative record companies. One such band are Nimmo and the Gauntletts, perhaps the most talented act in the film, who credit Strummerville with helping them out of a rut.
Showing the sometimes depressing origins and predicaments Strummer’s charity has helped musicians out of allows Strummerville to remind us that it doesn’t actually matter that much if music is good, as long as it is good – in a wider, life sense – for its creator. Hardly anyone could genuinely like all the music hinted at in the film, so diverse and mutually exclusive are the styles explored, but at the same time hardly anyone could fail to be impressed by how this charity has helped acts of all kinds. Despite its brevity – it is only an hour long – Letts film does a sterling job of showing these processes to us. It helps that he was able to get a good selection of talking heads on board. Antony Genn of The Hours and formerly of Strummer’s last band The Mescaleros is a witty presence, while Billy Bragg is a more stern but still inspiring figure, talking seriously and sensibly about Strummer’s weighty “legacy” and his own Jail Guitar Doors project, which uses music to help reform prison inmates.
Ultimately Strummerville is less about music in and of itself than it is about music as a force for social good. As wooly as this idea may sound to some, Letts’ impressive film shows that it is undeniably a reality as far as one charity’s admirable work is concerned.