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Soundscape: Joe Strummer's powerful soundtrack is the best thing about 'Walker.'

Worlds Away

Joe Strummer's soundtrack makes 'Walker.'

By Gabe Meline

Fans of the Clash are no doubt cognizant of Joe Strummer's affinity with world music; the genre-trotting and triumphant melding of punk and reggae had become, before his untimely death in 2002, the incendiary frontman's calling card. But few fans have ever heard, or heard of, Strummer's impeccable soundtrack to the film Walker--an understandably arcane but woefully underappreciated album in Strummer's already hefty catalog. A deluxe DVD version of the movie, released by the Criterion Collection, hits the shelves this week; the more discriminating are advised to pick up the attendant soundtrack instead, which Strummer himself occasionally cited as his favorite album.

Imagine the amazement of director Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid & Nancy) when Strummer delivered his score to the historical drama about William Walker, a soldier of fortune who takes over as dictator of Nicaragua in 1850: cunningly reinventing Central and South American styles, Strummer's music explores dry heat, dirt plains and wind-swept sand with complexly layered arrangements; punk rock is worlds away. Trickling guitar flourishes and romantic melodies abound amid undulating Latin rhythms, creating perfectly suited instrumental imagery of the most cinematic sort. Neil Young achieved this with Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, Ry Cooder achieved it with Wim Wender's Paris, Texas and Joe Strummer more than achieved it with Walker.

By recording the film's music in an all-acoustic format (brass, strings, percussion, piano, vibes, guitar), Strummer committed himself to historical accuracy; sadly, Cox did not. What could have been a blessing of a film, starring Ed Harris as the renegade 19th-century protagonist, is marred not only by a plodding screenplay but exacerbated with jarringly arch out-of-place modern elements, such as a tombstone bearing the name "Sam Peckinpah" and the ridiculous presence of televisions and helicopters.

This was all part of Cox's directorial comment on the U.S. government's involvement with Nicaragua at the time, and the people at Criterion, bless their souls, routinely shower praise on substandard movies carrying this sort of political context. But it makes for uneven watching. Even on its own, Strummer's soundtrack is beautifully detailed enough to provide the imagination with something much more fluid and enjoyable.

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