Screenwriter: Julien Temple
Runtime: 124 min
Release date: Out now
Last Tuesday night, the Glasgow Film Theatre was chock-a-block with people from all walks of life, which attested the immense popularity of the late Joe Strummer, mythical front man of the seminal punk band The Clash. Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten is certainly the most accomplished work from British rock director Julien Temple since his 2000 documentary The Filth and the Fury. It’s a mature opus that reveals tremendous progression from Temple’s early career, which included the amateur ad for the Sex Pistols, The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle (1980), as his debut feature.
In The Future Is Unwritten, Temple draws on both a shared punk history, and his close personal friendship, which developed over the last years of Joe Strummer’s life. The director paints a nuanced portrait of Strummer not only as the brooding punk icon, but also as a complex human being. Temple’s film is a celebration of Joe Strummer before, during, and after The Clash.
The opening credits feature Strummer’s inimitable voice, made raw by years of stage howling and compulsive smoking, defiantly defining himself as “a punk rock warlord”. The documentary moves on to show an angry young Joe shouting “White Riot” into a recording mike without any backing music. The tone is set, we’re in for a furious paced, white knuckle ride.
We follow Strummer’s compelling course from self-described “mouthy little git” John Mellor to anti-establishment icon Joe Strummer, through a deftly edited mix of home-made movies, satirical sketches from the man himself, and dreamy night-time recollections of friends and family gathered around a campfire. An explosive kaleidoscope of previously unearthed live concert footage spanning Strummer’s fascinating career, as well as tapes from his BBC radio programme, are the perfect soundtrack to his distinctive and storied existence, and turn Temple’s biopic into a multi-layered, riveting adventure.
Temple is not content with evoking a complicated man who used his songs as a bullhorn for his conscience, and a means to educate others about social and political injustice. He also probes behind Strummer’s mystique, revealing a flawed and mercurial human being, sometimes idealist to a fault. Strummer’s philanthropic insistence on selling records and triple albums like Sandinista at cost price left the band broke for most of their career.
The personal interviews of those who knew him best, including the surviving members of the Clash, give a rare glimpse into the man behind the mean-looking punk machine. Like Bob Dylan or David Bowie, Joe Strummer constantly reinvented himself. Known as Woody Mellor in his first band, the Vultures, he quickly cut off his hippie locks and swapped his flares for zips in 1977, when “he realised punk was the new thing if you wanted to get somewhere”, explains Clash guitarist/ co-writer Mick Jones. Drummer Topper Headon describes Strummer’s punk attitude as an act he maintained in public, even with his friends. The singer recalls his posh boarding school upbringing, away from his diplomat parents, as an unforgiving rite of passage that taught him to be self-reliant to extremes. Some mention his brother’s suicide, which Strummer never cared to talk about.
Except for Johnny Depp, still in his dazed and confused Pirate mode, complete with braided beard and bandana, the celebrities interviewed don’t stand out as cynical advertising props. Bono, Steve Buscemi, John Cusack, Matt Dillon, Martin Scorsese and Jim Jarmusch, among others, contribute insightful, emotional, and often hilarious anecdotes that serve the film admirably, offering a contemplative counterpoint to the sound and fury of the performance footage. Bono explains how the poster of bobbies with truncheons hanging over the stage during the first Clash tour had a particular resonance in politically troubled Ireland: “Rock became a matter of life and death”. “Working with him on Mystery Train (Jarmusch, ) was scarier than facing De Niro!”, chuckles Buscemi. “We always took vitamins and sunglasses before we went out with him, ‘cause we never knew when and where it was gonna end”, muses Dillon.
One thing for certain is that the older Joe Strummer, world musician and family man, is a much more approachable and likeable figure than the aggressive punk singer who used to slash journalists with cutting comments, ruthlessly turned his back on his friends, and had his manager Bernie Rhodes successively fire Topper Headon and Mick Jones, in order to avoid confrontations. The band’s dissolution marked the end of an era and shook Strummer’s self-confidence to its foundations, making him disappear from the public scene for more than a decade. In the mid-90s, he re-emerged with the Mescaleros, mellow and philosophical. Temple’s documentary, without completely challenging Strummer’s iconic status, paints a more honest and uncompromising picture.
If you’re a fan, you’ll shake your head and tap your foot with delight to the frantic beat of “Career Opportunities”, the hypnotic melody of “Armagideon Time”, or the jazzy tune of “Rock to the Casbah”. If you’re not, you’ll still enjoy spending a couple of hours with this fascinating bohemian character, ultimately consumed by his lust for life, his love of music, and his humanity.