Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten

Julien Temple gained fame with his sparkling Absolute Beginners in 1986, dove into music videos during the ensuing years, resurfaced in 2000 with The Filth and the Fury about the Sex Pistols and was hence perfectly positioned to helm this well-crafted biography of one of rock’s most compelling figures. The Future Is Unwritten is cleverly composed of period piece clips, interspersed with recent interviews of fellow travelers, and overlaid with audio clips of interviews with Strummer and his English radio shows. Strummer’s witty commentary is the meat and potatoes of the film (“but only the spice” of this review).

Most of the current era interviews are done around an evening beach bonfire, evoking an emotionally bittersweet mood. The reason for this thematic construct is revealed at the end of the film. 

Strummer (nee John Mellor) had an eclectic and international upbringing, revealed via stills from the family album and great 8mm sequences of family films. Tymon Dogg describes Strummer’s introduction to performing music. Strummer realizes the ukulele would be a good start (“only 4 strings!”) followed by busking in the tube station despite a setlist of only 5 songs (“no one will pass by again”).

Strummer led a hobo life hitchhiking from leafy south London to a gritty industrial town in Wales, and initially found himself more at home.  He bulldozed his way into the art school rock band, but suffered the slings, arrows and rotten tomatoes of the audience. Strummer fled back to London and joined the squat scene, not as an economic necessity but as a political statement (“can’t leave buildings empty”). The DIY punk ethic was in full force during the English economic vice grip of the mid 1970s.  He changed his name from Woody to Joe Strummer (“I can only play all 6 strings at once, not the fiddly bits”).

To drive the narrative, Temple uses crude black and white stick figure animations in the style of Woody Guthrie’s sketches, as well as segments from the color animated version of Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” A rock steady soundtrack of deep reggae cuts from the likes of U-Roy and Ernest Ranglin tells the story sonically.

Strummer formed the 101ers with various fellow squatters, and moved quickly away from rockabilly when the Sex Pistols slashed and burned their way across London. The highlight of Temple’s film is the description of how Strummer exploded into the Clash with Mick Jones and Paul Simonon (“it was like being in a 24 hour a day gang”).

Previously unseen are tremendous sequences of the essentially (and admittedly) inept Clash slogging their way through rehearsals, showing each other how to use the instruments. (“That was the great thing about punk – if you were ugly you were in”). Jones knew about music, Strummer wanted to do the words…it was a great fit. Somehow their talent caught up with their enthusiasm, and a viable sound emerged.

Bono talks about how everything stopped in 1976 or 1977, when no longer was it about driving a Rolls Royce into a swimming pool, but it was about being like the Clash. Not a bad thing, says Bono, to have the Clash as your first rock show. The concert iconography of the truncheons and riots of London reflected Belfast. Bono and his mates stayed up nights trying to figure out how to be in a band

As the son of a diplomat, Strummer was brought up to be a great host. He was a raconteur par excellence. He didn’t care for money, but he cared about fame. Temple points out that the punk ethic did not initially evoke appreciation for black culture, but the Clash broke through that narrowminded-ness on their first album with a cover of Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves.”

After the release of their second album, five months in Pimlico led to the pinnacle sonic blast of the 70s, released practically at the last possible moment of the decade. London Calling forever set the standard of music – forceful, urgent, political and endlessly listenable. That success set the stage for the sprawling Sandinista! Released as a triple album for the price of a single, just to drive the record company crazy. To Bono, Strummer’s lyrics were like a world atlas.

In addition to the logical musical compadres, Temple brings in many movie types (Steve Buscemi, Jim Jarmusch, Johnny Depp, Matt Dillon). The most insightful and brief is Martin Scorsese, who speaks about how the edginess of his Raging Bull emanated from the music of the Clash.

The Clash continued their spiral upward, but the cracks in the armor are shown after their success in America: Strummer grabbing his mate’s girls, Jones’ spliff leanings. Temple uses a Raging Bull clip behind the description of the punch up between Strummer and Jones. The unspoken comparison as the band wound down is to the Beatles’ White Album wherein none of the four bandmembers were in the studio at the same time.

Topper Headon describes hearing his song “Rock the Casbah” scorch into the top 5 (the band’s biggest hit ever) while completely strung out on drugs, sacked from the band. Strummer admits they became everything they hated: huge self-important rock stars. The gigs got bigger and bigger but their heart went out of it. Jones seemed to like the success, Strummer lost the edge. The clips from the massive 1983 US Festival reveal the juxtaposition (“we stumbled into every pitfall of a band that goes from nothing to becoming huge…overdubbing the sounds of ants marching”). Their teeth certainly looked better in their final gigs.

The band ends in a whimper as one by one the members leave or get kicked out, to be replaced by puppets. Temple has an effective motif to evoke each bandmember’s departure.

Jones moved to success in Big Audio Dynamite. Strummer turned to soundtracks and acting with pistols, coffee and cowboys, all the while trying to grapple with fatherhood.

Strummer toured with the Pogues, and suffered sheer torment seeing a news clip of a US bomb etched with “Rock the Casbah.”

After all his early rantings against the hippies, Strummer recanted in his later years and declared himself a hippie. The Glastonbury Festival (“the best place to be on the island this day”) seemed to be the renaissance for him, the campfire motif emerging as explanation for the film’s thematic structure.

Strummer formed the woefully overlooked Mescaleros, released a few albums and returned to the stage. This is the point in the story where last year’s Let’s Rock Again started. The clips of Strummer touting his band’s gigs on the Atlantic City boardwalk remain priceless.

Strummer’s last few years were happy, with an impromptu reunion not at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or for millions of dollars, but with Jones at a small gig. Back where it all started. Strummer died on December 22, 2002 in his home Somerset, the victim of an undiagnosed congenital heart defect.

Strummer’s denouement was his handmade Christmas cards, evoking a world interconnected by campfires. The cards arrived the day he died.

Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten opens in theatres on November 2nd.

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.