Silhouetted against the bloody orb of the sun, a lone vaquero rides through a sear and pitiless desert. Long days on the trail have taken their toll on his sanity, at the top of a rise his horse rears in widescreen splendour. The vaquero slides helplessly off the back of the horse and lies unconscious in the dust. The camera follows an empty Special Brew tin as it rolls down to stop against a cactus. Fade to black...
You get the picture? Straight To Hell took a similar, affectionately distorting approach to genre. Part spaghetti western homage, part film noir heist, part surreal bricolage, part anti-imperialist fable, it was filmed on a thin shoestring by one of our most idiosyncratic directors and starred a horde of defiantly non-cinematic musicians leavened with only a sprinkling of experienced actors. And it worked. Gloriously.
The film's roots are in the Nicaragua solidarity campaigns of the early 1980s. Director Alex Cox had been involved in staging a benefit gig with (inter alia) Joe Strummer, the Pogues and Elvis Costello. At this time he was nearly at a loose end having just finished editing Sid & Nancy, his tale of punk's smack-crossed lovers. The gig raising the requisite monies, the idea was floated that its success be repeated with the same artists, only in Nicaragua instead of Brixton (bearing in mind that a civil war was raging in Nicaragua).
A grand idea but no company was far-sighted (or foolhardy) to finance such a venture, so the next best idea was to decamp to Spain and make a film with the bands in the very locations that the great Sergio Leone had used for films such as 'Django'. The challenge being to get the non-thesps to look like they're doing a little more than just milling about in front of the cameras.
The plot was kept simple (some critics preferred the term 'non-existent'). Three washed-up hoods (one of whom is Joe Strummer) seek refuge in Blanco Town with a then only mildly infamous Ms Courtney Love. The whole reeking dog patch is the fiefdom of the McMahon gang, a mob of psychopathic caffeine junkies (played with disturbing naturalism by the Pogues). Also inhabiting the town are the McMahon's put-upon butler (played by Elvis Costello) and a hapless vendor of sausages who contributes perhaps the only sausage-based song cycle in the long history of popular music to the soundtrack.
As mentioned, the plot is kept simple - practically everyone gets killed, some twice.
Needless to say, the cineaste community reacted with general indifference, and in some cases thinly-veiled contempt. With the benefit of hindsight, however, we can see that the film's non-linear structure and sometimes jarring stylistic juxtapositions put it way ahead of its time. Or something.
A handy corollary of using musicians in your film is having a soundtrack on tap and, thankfully, Cox made full and fertile use of the talent to hand. At the time there was only a partial release of the soundtrack, with much being left out. This reissue, re-jigged by Phil Chevron and Dan Wool (of Pray For Rain) presents the full score for the first time.
Joe Strummer provides a pair of bleached instrumentals (Evil Darling and Ambush at Mystery Rock) which are part-soundtrack, part stripped-to-the-bone rockabilly and which point a lean and accusing finger towards his later solo work with the Mescaleros. Co-producer Dan Wool's band, Pray For Rain, update classic spaghetti tropes, replacing the widescreen choral dynamic of Morricone with a more personal, switchblade menace.
However, it's the Pogues who provide more than half the total music here, written at a time when they were starting to look beyond the Irish diaspora. Mostly written by Jem Finer, their pieces have a Dia de los Muertes on 20 B&H quality that neatly marries their urban selves to a more arid, Tex-Mex feel. There's also a Cait O'Riordan-led, whole-cast run through Danny Boy, which would reduce the most marble-hearted fiend to tears.
I don't feel able to do adequate verbal justice to the sausage cycle...
So there you are - only an 18-year wait. Hardly Stakhanovite but well worth it. Play it loud, swill a bucket of black coffee and shoot something inexpensive.