Julien Temple is the film chronicler of British punk music, first with The Great Rock And Roll Swindle (1979) and twenty years later with the much more accomplished The Filth And The Fury (1999). Temple is still on the upswing with Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, an admiring yet thorough documentary homage to the founder of The Clash, who died in 2002 at the age of 50.
This is the rare bio-doc that satisfies - as a biography of the charismatic and often ornery son of a diplomat who charted a new direction in pop music, and as a journey through the styles and movements in which Strummer was a part.
The natural public for Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten are the army of Clash fans over the age of forty in the US, UK, Japan, Australia and beyond, but the broader pop audience will also be drawn to Temple's tour through the antecedents of much of today's politicised music. The doc plays best on the screen, yet television is sure to be another strong market for it. The film screened at Sundance in world documentary competition, where Temple's music doc Glastonbury played last year.
Temple has plumbed the family archives for a trove of pictures from Strummer's privileged youth, which was spent as Joseph Mellor on overseas postings, where his father was something of a strange fit as a left-winger in Her Majesty's Service. Strummer/Mellor was born in Turkey in 1952 and described himself as a 'mouthy little git' and a 'boarding school bully' in his teen years. Temple's approach to assembling the footage can sometimes look like film ripped by hand, serving the hectic ad hoc mood of the 1970s, during which young art students and musicians competed to produce the rawest possible sound and shared squats set for demolition. Strummer called himself Woody in those days, a salute to Woody Guthrie.
Rather than take the standard talking heads route, Temple uses Strummer's own voice from his London Calling BBC Radio show and other interviews as narration, and gathers acquaintances around campfires in London, New York and Los Angeles: Strummer brought friends together in just those settings backstage at the Glastonbury festival (itself the subject of a Temple documentary that screened at Sundance last year). Their reminiscences wind through Strummer's life, family, bands, and the occasional films in which he appeared.
Rousing performances follow Strummer onstage from 1973 with The Vultures, an ensemble of art school kids, to a benefit gig by The Mescaleros in support of London firefighters in November 2002, when Mick Jones (ex-Clash) came up from the audience to play with the band, ending a long-standing grudge. Intercut are newsreel footage with glimpses of the often-absurd Britain that Strummer mocked and clips from the animated Animal Farm that assert Strummer's credentials as an Orwell admirer and a champion of free speech.
Clash members, including Mick Jones (who Strummer fired in 1983), talk about their irascible friend, as do Bono, Johnny Depp, Steve Buscemi, Jim Jarmusch, and Martin Scorsese (who listened to The Clash constantly while making Raging Bull).
The most informative testimony comes from pre-fame friends, who remember a shameless Strummer who lived by his own rules, hated hippies, and slept with their girlfriends. Others recall his anguish when American airmen painted 'Rock The Casbah' on bombs before dropping them on Baghdad in 1991. Footage of Strummer's widow and two daughters (from an earlier relationship) is also included. Temple made a better film, thanks to their cooperation.
Sometimes Temple's rapid-fire editing can be as relentless as the early Clash rants, and the doc felt like a long 123 minutes. Yet audiences at Sundance could have stayed for much more, faulting Temple in post-screening sessions for obscure material that he had abbreviated (unjustly, questioners felt) or simply not included - evidence of strong demand for an eventual DVD with extended performances, family footage and interviews.
Sony BMG Films