[8 November 2007]
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)
The Sex Pistols declared that there was “No Future.” The Clash insisted that there was one worth fighting for.
The cruelest twist of fate involving the two greatest British punk rock bands is that while Johnny Rotten and the surviving Pistols continue to embarrass themselves on misbegotten reunion tours, Clash leader Joe Strummer has been dead and gone for five years now.
But it’s some small solace, at least, that with “Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten,” Julian Temple, the British music documentary director who helmed the 2000 Pistols’ flick “The Filth and the Fury,” has done such cinematic justice to the punk humanist born John Graham Mellor, who died of a congenital heart defect in 2002.
The son of a British diplomat who lived in Mexico and Turkey as a child—hence the Clash front man’s abiding interest in what he called “global-a-go-go”—Strummer first reinvented himself as a folksinger named Woody. Later he settled on his everyman stage name.
“I can only play all six strings or none at all,” he says in one of the many interview clips that bring him vividly to life. “That’s why I called myself Joe Strummer.”
In telling the Strummer’s story of common decency and unbridled passion that will be freshly heartbreaking for anyone who saw The Clash in their glorious late 1970s-early 1980s prime (or who caught on to the band’s heart-on-sleeve magnificence later), Temple avoids almost all of the hoary cliches of music documentary making.
Sure, he’s got lots of talking heads, including Bono, John Cusack, Anthony Kiedis, Matt Dillon and Johnny Depp (in full Jack Sparrow costume). But he films all his interviewees by the flames of a bonfire, and doesn’t identify any of them, ascribing no more importance to the opinions of the rich and famous that to the various ex-wives, old chums and band mates who have their equal say so.
That’s part of the democratic punk ethos in action—“We were at one with the audience,” Strummer says. “You should never feel above anyone.”
“Future” traces the Clash’s efforts to live up to that egalitarian ideal, beginning with electrifying footage that Temple, who used to squat in houses on the same west London streets as Strummer, shot himself in 1976.
The Clash ultimately crumbled under the pressure of its “Only Band That Matters” reputation. Strummer’s songwriting partner Mick Jones calls a career in music no different “than any form of prostitution.” And Strummer lived through a lost decade before returning with the Mescaleros before his death at 50.
Temple tells the story in winning, unorthodox ways, making use of clips from an animated version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and putting excerpts from his tenure as a BBC radio DJ to excellent use.
Strummer is never portrayed as anything but flawed. Temple leaves in the details about how he slept with drummer Topper Headon’s girlfriend and foolishly tossed Jones out of the band, as well as his idiosyncratic smoker’s opinion that non-smokers should be banned from buying any product a smoker created.
Above all, Strummer comes across as an undimmed idealist who defined punk rock as “having exemplary manners to your fellow human beings.” And before he died, the populist rocker summed up his outlook on life like this: “Without people, you’re nothing. Don’t forget you’re alive.”
JOE STRUMMER: THE FUTURE IS UNWRITTEN
3 ½ stars
Directed by Julian Temple.
With Bono, Steve Buscemi, Terry Chimes, John Cooper Clarke, John Cusack, Johnny Depp, Matt Dillon, and Joe Strummer.
Distributed by IFC Films.
2 hours, 4 mins.
No MPAA rating (profanity).