Once Upon a Time in Almería
20 February 2012

Straight to Hell

In August 1986, an unlikely crew descended on the Tabernas desert, including Joe Strummer, Courtney Love, Elvis Costello, members of the Pogues, Sy Richardson, and Jim Jarmusch. Even Dennis Hopper and Grace Jones jetted in for a day. The resulting film, Alex Cox’s Straight to Hell, was neither a commercial nor critical success, but it has since achieved a form of cult status. A remastered director’s cut was just released last year. But the fact that the film got made at all was the result of an equally improbable set of circumstances.

In 1984 The Clash were on the verge of self destructing. Mick Jones had already been kicked out of the group, and the new and remaining members collided with eachother and their manager over their future direction. Strummer escaped all this in a series of jaunts to Spain. He’d already been introduced to Andalucía through former girlfriend Paloma Romero of The Slits and had developed an obsession with Federico García Lorca. He produced an album by Spanish rock band 091 and spent many hours in local bars. And he discovered the village of San José on the coast of Almería.

The following year, Strummer recorded two songs for Cox’s film Sid and Nancy. They had the idea to set the video for the song Love Kills in an old Mexican border town, with Gary Oldman as a gunslinger. Cox was aware of the spaghetti western film sets in Almeria, so they decided to shoot the video there, using Texas Hollywood and the set from El Condor.

Joe then accompanied Cox to the screening of Sid and Nancy at the Cannes film festival. The presentation was a disappointment, but over a long night of drinking by the hotel pool, Cox, Strummer, and Dick Rude dreamed up a story about three miserable bank robbers shot as a contemporary spoof on the spaghetti western genre. Cox described the scene the following morning:

“outside the hotel in the bright sunlight, still in their evening wear, black suits, white shirts, black [bow ties] were my roomates, like characters in a film, sweating, drinking coffee, trying to get over their hangovers. That was the origin of Straight to Hell. We were full of the energy of the video in Almeria, and really wanted to go back.”

The film itself opens with its protagonists in black suits lounging by the pool of the Gran Hotel Almería, which had itself hosted dozens of film stars during the 1960s and 1970s.

The project might have remained as just an alcohol-fueled daydream. At the same time, however, Cox was organizing a rock and roll tour of Nicaragua in support of the Sandinista rebels. The tour was to include Strummer, Elvis Costello and the Pogues. Cox would film it. But the project fell through when they couldn’t find a media company interested in supporting the rebel movement. Cox knew he could get funding to make a movie, however, and now he had a cast of musicians who had already committed a month of their time.

Cox and Rude wrote the script in three days and the film was shot over four weeks. The western town they used was originally constructed for the 1973 film Chino starring Charles Bronson. It sits alongside the A-92 highway to Granada, directly across from Mini-Hollywood and Texas Hollywood. Throughout the film highway traffic can been seen passing across the background. Strummer spent most nights on the set sleeping in a beat up ‘71 Dodge, wearing the same black suit every day. Spin magazine sent a reporter to cover the making of the film. Cox later recalled:

“there was a great deal of pleasure attached to being there. In Almeria, in the desert, in midsummer, at night. It’s a pleasure I can’t explain. There are people who think the desert looks like a slag-heap. That is  their point of view.  For me the greatest pleasure of Straight to Hell was filming in that fantastic, surreal Andalucia landscape.”

The critics hated it, of course. “It’s going straight to nowhere,” Variety predicted. Viewers complained that they couldn’t understand what was happening in the film.

But both Strummer and Cox went on to form long term connections with Almería. Strummer returned to San José regularly with his family during the 1990s, and Cox spent a period living in a house in the Tabernas desert. Cox returned to the site in 2004 and made a video of what remained of the set, accompanied by Zander Schloss’s spoken recollections of the filming. And a recently released documentary Quiero tener una ferretería en Andalucía (“I Want to Have a Hardware Store in Andalucía”) tells the story of Stummer’s longtime connection with southern Spain. Jim Jarmusch also returned to Almeria to film The Limits of Control.

Last year, Cox released Straight to Hell Returns, an extended version of the film with new footage and added digital effects. Cox speaks about his connection to Almeria in a video introduction created for a screening of the film. Also last year, a proposal was introduced in the city of Granada to name a street after Joe Strummer, acknowledging his love for the city and the fact that, in writing the song Spanish Bombs, he “carried the name of Granada throughout the world.”

Today all that remains of the original set are a few piles of crumbled bricks and timbers.

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