“Punk Rock Warlord” – That was how Joe Strummer wanted to be remembered, as he so defiantly declared in the audio of the opening scene of The Future Is Unwritten, a poetically beautiful celluloid tribute to the legendary late frontman for the Clash.
Joe was indeed a warlord, albeit one of a cultural conquest whose saber was his pen, his notebook his shield and his battle plight the raising of awareness for the working class people constantly taking a backseat to oligarchic greed and corporate saturation. And who better than Temple, who helped to deliver such a brutally honest and visually entertaining two-part dissertation of the rise and plummet of the Clash’s ’77 punk rivals the Sex Pistols in the forms of 1980’s The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle and 2000s The Flith and the Fury, to deliver the character study of such a complex and passionate man who helped shape the last 30 years of rock ‘n’ roll as we know it.
That aforementioned opening scene sees Strummer blasting out “White Riot” a capella in the studio as though he had all the electric fury of Mick Jones’ guitar, Paul Simonon’s bass and Topper Headon’s drums roaring right behind him (which eventually happens). It’s a fitting start to a film that delves deep into the calculated madness behind Strummer’s methodology. Told through unearthed interviews with Strummer, killer swaths of performance footage and exclusively-filmed testimonials from a wide variety of friends, family and famous fans, The Future Is Unwritten reaches as far and wide as the ideals of its subject.
Temple utilizes two of Strummer’s greatest loves, his BBC radio program and his unrequited love for jamming beside a campfire, as the dual backdrops for which to build upon the story of Strummer’s life and his music. And interwoven within these backdrops are a seemingly-endless barrage of animated interludes, historic stock footage, random film clips of such Joe-centric film classics as Raging Bull and George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, home movies. There’s a phenomenal soundtrack featuring everything from Woody Guthrie to the Rolling Stones, from Pink Floyd to the MC5, from U-Roy to the Ramones, from Tim Hardin to Ernest Ranglin, and of course, various classic Clash, 101’ers, Latino Rockabilly War and Mescaleros songs. All this facilitates the director’s quest to create the most well-rounded portrayal of Joe Strummer, the man, the musician and the music fan. Strummer was a scholar of all forms of music, who brought so many varying elements to the sound that helped to make his forays into the realms of dub-reggae and Spanish music come off as natural as the gnashing punk drive he cut his teeth on as a Clash City Rocker.
Around (or at least in the vicinity of) the campfire, you see such familiar faces as Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bono, Martin Scorsese, former Clash mates Jones and Topper (Simonon is conspicuous in his absence here), John Cusack, Steve Buscemi, Matt Dillon, Courtney Love, Grandmaster Melle Mel, Jim Jarmusch and Johnny Depp (in full Captain Jack Sparrow regalia, no less) singing their favorite Clash tunes and waxing philosophical on the whos, whats, whens, wheres and hows of Strummer’s impact on each of their respective lives. These scenes are without a doubt the most interesting portions of The Future Is Unwritten, due to the fact that they paint a vivid portrait of how Joe’s ethics and persona cast a wide net across an unimaginable array of different people, regardless of age, race, gender, political affiliation or income bracket. Whether it was at a drug-addled squat in East London or a dusty old record shop in Kingston, Jamaica or a dance club in Lower Manhattan or a rap concert in the Bronx or a villa in rural Mexico, Strummer lived vicariously through each moment of each locale as though he was raised there himself.
“Joe had that knack of being able to go to different places around the world and really identify with the underdog,” stated longtime Clash compatriot and documentarian Don Letts in a recent interview with PopMatters. “Joe wouldn’t have been swatting around in some luxury hotel, he would invariably be down in some slum. That’s where he felt most comfortable, with the real people.”
Kudos to Julian Temple for crafting such a satisfyingly robust and unique look into the legacy of Joe Strummer with The Future Is Unwritten, now made for optimum home viewing with the film’s long-awaited release on DVD, which contains over 100 minutes of additional interview footage with the many great friends and family members who gathered together before the camera to pay tribute to one of the greatest voices in rock history.
It has been nearly seven years since Joe’s shocking and untimely death at the age of 50. But so long as people continue to take heed in his words, his actions, his ideals and, most of all, his music, and maintain his message of individuality in the face of political polarity and open-hearted acceptance of all races and cultures in spite of the barrage of hate-fueled propaganda the governments spoon-feed its citizens, his spirit will live on forever more in an unwritten future.