Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten
directed by Julien Temple
starring Joe Strummer and The Clash
Vertigo Films, HanWay Film, and Film4
It’s better to burn out than rust away, but rust is what ultimately consumed Joe Strummer after the Clash broke up. Strummer was the classic rock star — a lonely kid from a lackluster home who sought and found fame as a surrogate for the love he never had. Sprung from the London squatter scene that fomented punk rock, he found influences in the reggae, folk music, and the antics of the Sex Pistols, and he set the world on fire. The Ramones and the Pistols may have started the sound, but Strummer, Jones, Simonon, and Headon fanned it to critical and commercial success only to find that fame can be a big pain in the arse. Strummer summed it up poignantly when he said “I became one of the people I set out to destroy.”
Director Julian Temple, best known for The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, pulls together a vast collection of vignettes from Joe’s ex-friends, ex-lovers, ex-band mates, and a few dozen celebrities. Interspersed with archival footage and bits of video from the 1956 version of the film 1984, the interviews are all filmed through the leaping flames of a series of bonfires. While the concept is clever at first and relates to Joe’s unlikely love of camping, after two hours it feels like these people have all been sent to hell for some inexplicable reason. Furthermore, there’s little indication who all these people are, and while you’ll pick out Bono and Flea, the more obscure Jim Jarmush or Don Letts leaves you with a “who was that again?” feeling.
This is the classic fan film, but there’s still an excellent view of just how evil things had become in London in the ’70s. Revolution was in the air, but one could argue that punk defused much of the pressure, and gave the feeling that ANYONE could start a band, so long as you could steal some instruments. Strummer comes across as genuinely nice, but when the band broke up, he flopped around with no focus and eventually died of an unrecognized heart condition. Like so many giants of rock and roll, he left too soon, but he put punk on the charts, and he did it his way.