Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten

[6 November 2007]

By Rafer Guzman

Newsday (MCT)

Rock music seems to be producing fewer and fewer icons like Joe Strummer, the lead singer of The Clash who died in 2002. A musician who valued integrity and meaning even while operating inside the glitzy record industry - and, later, well outside of it - Strummer regarded music as more than entertainment, a larger force that had the power to transform lives, and perhaps the world.

Does that sound overly earnest? That’s what happens when you get a Clash fan talking. Julien Temple, the director of “Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten,” falls into that trap as well, but his documentary can be quite clear-eyed, especially when exploring Strummer’s lesser-known years before and after The Clash. As Strummer attempts to define and redefine himself, he seems human but still heroic.

Through interviews, home movies and even animated cartoons based on the singer’s doodles, Temple follows John Graham Mellor’s evolution from troubled boarding-school student to unwashed hippie to leader of a world-famous punk band. It’s not always a pleasant journey: Those hippie friends were jettisoned quickly. As one keen observer says of Strummer, “Money didn’t mean anything to him - but he did like fame.”

After The Clash’s demise, Strummer sought a new sense of purpose. He found it leading an adventurous band called The Mescaleros; hosting a free-form radio show on BBC World Service; and holding jam-sessions around campfires at the annual Glastonbury music festival. To a former colleague, he sent a note of reconciliation: “Nothing’s changed. We’re all old hippies.”

Temple, who’s directed two films on The Sex Pistols, whips out his all-access pass to England’s rock scene; Bono’s comments are particularly insightful. Conversely, actors such as Matt Dillon and John Cusack seem to be included solely because of their fame. And it’s tough to take Johnny Depp seriously when he’s still wearing his pirate eyeliner and beard-braids.

Though jumbled and occasionally overstylized, the film does one thing very well: It makes you wish we had more Strummers in the world.

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