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The original message of British punk was simple—“I am an anarchist!”—but the Clash soon complicated things, thanks largely to frontman Joe Strummer’s paradoxical character: punk purist and roots rocker, proud Briton and engaged world citizen, upscale boarding-school student and West London squatter. Strummer’s life only became knottier after the Clash split, so it’s fitting that his cinematic biography, Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, has been assembled by Julien Temple. Best known for his work on a pair of films celebrating the Sex Pistols, The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle and The Filth and the Fury, Temple prefers impressionistic collage to straightforward documentary.
Temple began filming the Clash in 1977 as a London film student, an avocation that yielded the new movie’s footage of Strummer in the studio, singing “White Riot” without accompaniment. Temple soon had to choose sides and chose the Pistols. Years later, however, Strummer and the filmmaker became friendly again, as the ex-punker became a country squire and moved to Somerset, where the filmmaker also lived. By the ’90s, Strummer’s hippie tendencies and global enthusiasms—the son of a diplomat, he spent parts of his childhood in Turkey, Mexico, and Malawi—had reasserted themselves. In 1998, he formed the Mescaleros, who tempered post-combat rock with Indian, Celtic, Arabic, and electronic flavors.
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The Clash veteran also began to stage a series of campfire gatherings, which is why Temple summoned many of Strummer’s friends to reminisce around bonfires in London, Somerset, New York, Los Angeles, and Spain. The director doesn’t ID the participants, but they include such diverse eminences as Johnny Depp, Jim Jarmusch, punk poet John Cooper Clarke, early Clash (and later Public Image Limited) guitarist Keith Levene, and onetime Slits drummer Palmolive. Also offering remarks are director Martin Scorsese; drummer Topper Headon, a major composer of the Clash’s later songs; and Bono, who’s what Strummer might have become if only he’d been messianic and humorless. (Clash guitarist Mick Jones appears briefly, but bassist Paul Simonon opted out.)
With a self-mythologizing stance inaugurated by early manager Bernie Rhodes, the Clash produced plenty of striking images for Temple to repurpose. In addition, during the wilderness years between the Clash’s underrated 1985 album, Cut the Crap, and the Mescaleros’ 1999 debut, Strummer did lots of film work, both as a composer and a reluctant actor, notably for Jarmusch and Alex Cox. This gives Temple more material than interview and concert footage to cut into the film, which also employs snippets of Dick Rude’s Mescaleros tour documentary, 2004’s Let’s Rock Again!, as well as audio clips from interviews Strummer did between 1998 and his death in 2002. But Temple doesn’t restrict himself to such directly relevant material. He interjects clips from the animated Animal Farm much the way he used Richard III in The Filth and the Fury, and he evokes British punk’s arrival by wedding a bit of Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 student-revolt parable, If.…, to the MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams.”
Where Temple’s Pistols flicks were polemic, Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten is more open-ended and less strident. It acknowledges its subject’s faults as well as his achievements, in part because Strummer himself came to realize that “we turned into the people we were trying to avoid.” Yet despite that embarrassment, and a long middle period of vacillation and sparse output, Strummer ultimately remade himself as an engaging musician and an admirable man. Temple’s intelligent and inspiring film answers the question that still flummoxes John Lydon: Is there life after punk? Yes indeed, it says, and for Joe Strummer, it wasn’t nearly long enough.