Print the Legend: ‘Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten’
The flames from the bonfires around which the participants in Julien Temple’s loving portrait of Joe Strummer sit brings something more to their faces and words than the cold glare of a documentarian’s prying camera. Warmth, heat, honesty… whatever it is, that factor is a large part of what makes the documentary Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten such a rollicking, damn-near inspirational film, since these people don’t act like they’re being interviewed, but rather just talking. They’re telling stories around a fire to whomever happens to be listening, helping the crackling flames keep back the circle of night and loneliness by remembering one of the century’s most astounding and inexplicable talents.
A child of British diplomats who was always keenly embarrassed of his public school education and refers to himself as “a mouthy little git,” Strummer was squatting in London with gypsies in the mid-1970s, busking for food money, playing in a pub band called the 101ers, and generally charming the pants off of everyone he met. It was a hand-to-mouth existence, but seemed like the kind of thing Strummer could do for years, living his beloved lowlife. Then he was being introduced to a trio of short-haired punks, The Clash was formed, and Strummer was on his way to rock stardom.
He wasn’t a singer, he was a yelper (as some fantastic footage of him laying down the vocal track for “White Riot” shows particularly well), a snaggletoothed smoker with a penchant for nonsensical lyrics and overblown statements. But in Strummer’s work, with The Clash and afterwards, there always rang true a tone of absolute and unmistakable sincerity, sung and played with complete conviction each and every time. This was a man without irony, leading a band that set the model for all the conscious groups which would follow (tellingly, Bono is one of the interviewees here, talking about The Clash being his first concert, and in short the reason he got into music).
Temple fortunately doesn’t feel the need to follow every instance of The Clash’s development as he judiciously prunes. Thusly we hear a lot about their furiously jagged first album (which showed how beautifully angry early punk could be) and the 1980 masterful double LP London Calling (which illustrated the musical and lyrical range punk could explore), but nothing about the album which came between them, Give ’Em Enough Rope (a good album, but really just a placeholder for what was to come).
Temple zooms in instead on the dynamic of putting such an outsized and beloved personality as Strummer into the fame machine and seeing what’s left of it on the other side. It isn’t a pretty picture for much of the time, given the rocket ride to the top, schizophrenic ennui of the post-Clash years wandering in the wilderness, with all the addictions, selfishness, contradictions, hypocrisy, and general bad behavior that such a ride entails. But the film is never less than thrilling, particularly given the cascades of affection rendered to Strummer, who railed against injustice and banged the drum for freedom louder than almost any other popular musician of the last few decades.
Temple is one of the defining cinematic chroniclers of the punk scene — particularly in his two battling Sex Pistols documentaries, The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle and The Filth and the Fury — when he’s not making music videos or the occasional oddity like Earth Girls Are Easy. He has the key to punk’s inner sanctum, having been there with camera right at the start of it all. But since he is better known as the Pistols’ guy, it’s strange that he would set himself to the task of telling the story of the leader of that band’s greatest rival, The Clash. Strange, but lucky, since Temple does his friend Strummer proud here, weaving a tender-hearted story around the man’s life and work, mixing an appreciative but not worshipful appreciation of him as a person with a full-bore demand that he be seriously reckoned with as an artist for the ages.
In that sense, Temple’s decision to set most of the interviews around roaring bonfires in several locales not only shows his understanding of Strummer’s personality (in his post-Clash years, he would often set up a campfire at outdoor music festivals around which people gathered in throngs) but also a knowledge that this film is less about the facts of the matter than it is about telling stories. The Future is Unwritten may be more about the legend of Joe Strummer, but when one considers the outlandish size of the personality involved, there’s nothing wrong with that. As the man said, print the legend, particularly when it’s about a mouthy little git of a world-changing rabble-rouser like this one.
A version of this article was originally published at filmcritic.com
Title: Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten
Director: Julien Temple
Studio: IFC Films
Year of release: 2007