Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten

2007, Movie, PG, 124 mins


Julien Temple's Sex Pistols documentary, THE FILTH AND THE FURY, remains one of the best of the punk-rock docs, a bracing blast of energy that reminds audiences just why the band was so exciting and so relevant to their time. Unfortunately, Temple's treatment of The Clash, particularly the band's lead singer, Joe Strummer, who died unexpectedly in 2002, is far less involving.

The film opens with a bang: An impossibly young Strummer, circa 1977, is alone in the studio and laying down the vocal track for the Clash's first single, "White Riot." Dymo Label tape credits, punk rock as urgent as an air-raid siren — the feeling is just right. Temple then dips back into Strummer's childhood: Far from a scruffy kid from the council flats like, say, John Lydon, Strummer, born John Graham Mellor, was the son of a British diplomat and lived abroad until the age of 9, after which he attended a private boarding school with his brother, David. Never a good student, Strummer learned early to distrust authority (and boarding school taught him all he needed to know about the bully-or-be-bullied ways of the world); coming of age during the upheavals of 1968, Strummer gained a political consciousness and a love of rock and roll that informed much of his work with The Clash. In 1970 David committed suicide by ODing in a public park; three years later, Strummer attended art school in Wales where, calling himself "Woody" as a nod to Woody Guthrie, he formed his first band, The Vultures. Back in economically depressed London by 1974, Strummer became part of the politically active squatters' movement that turned disused buildings into living spaces as a form of social protest. Busking on the streets for spare change, "Woody Mellor" took on a whole new persona — he was now rocker "Joe Strummer" — and a new band: The 101'ers. In 1976, Strummer dumped the 101'ers and joined Mick Jones, Paul Simenon and drummer Terry Chimes in the legendary Clash.

The story of The Clash is a tale of idealism, naivete, ruthless management, ego clashes and crash-and-burn fame, but surprisingly, Temple breezes through their history as if the career of one of the few truly great bands to emerge from the English punk movement were just a minor episode in Strummer's life. Temple barely mentions the recording of their groundbreaking albums, and despite the stirring testimonials offered by a legion of interviewees, little sense of the band's import or power is ever communicated. Instead, Temple devotes the entire second hour of the film to Strummer's uninteresting post-Clash career, first as a solo artist (Strummer's embarrassing final Jones-less Clash album, "Cut the Crap," goes understandably unmentioned), then as frontman for his last band, The Mescaleros. Temple has a knack for assembling bits and pieces of cultural detritus into era-evocative collages, and thanks to recordings made of Strummer hosting his eclectic "London Calling" radio show, the man himself is able to posthumously narrate some of his own life story. Temple makes the mistake of never identifying any of his interview subjects, all of whom are filmed huddling around campfires in homage to Strummer's utopian idea of reestablishing a sense of community through such social gatherings. Plus, thirty years down the line, not everyone looks as they once did, so even fans will have trouble putting names to aged faces. Newcomers, meanwhile, will feel hopelessly shut out. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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