Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten is a biographical documentary, created by a fan, that may leave you thinking less of the subject.
Though he's obviously starstruck with the transcendence of his late friend (Joe Strummer died of a congenital heart defect in 2002), director Julien Temple literally creates a party -- a bonfire-side chat -- to celebrate the founder of punk icons The Clash, and invites people who aren't all there to praise Caesar. (There's even a clip of David Lee Roth slagging the man for being too serious).
What emerges -- amid a sea of footage -- is a picture of a complicated, driven man, whose darkness belied his affirmative message, and who could be ice-cold to yesterday's friends when his attention wandered to something new.
The Clash provided the soundtrack for my college years with albums such as London Calling and Combat Rock. Through Strummer's voice, they were soberly progressive, anti-corporate, adopting a punks-for-peace pose overflowing with the milk of human kindness.
I've since heard from people who dealt with the band that the guy could be a jerk (the late critic Lester Bangs was a believer who ended up feeling betrayed by what he saw as pious hypocrisy).
Meanwhile, no less a professional messiah than U2's Bono is in the film crediting Strummer with inspiring his social consciousness.
In fact Strummer himself is filmed saying, "Punk rock means exemplary manners to your fellow human being."
This from a diplomat's son who reinvented himself as a working-class "hippie" named Woody during London's squatter movement, then decided he was a punk (a move partly inspired by the overdose death of his neo-Nazi brother). He changed his name again, dropping all his hippie friends and girlfriend (who is in the movie telling her story a quarter-century later).
Ex-Clashmates are along in Temple's movie to nurse grudges -- such as drummer Topper Headon, who was dropped for his heroin habit, with the apparent proviso that Strummer would announce he was on hiatus for fatigue. Strummer then announced the heroin addiction to the media.
In time, after the success of Rock The Casbah, The Clash became the kind of arena-filling rock elephant Strummer had railed against (Strummer fan Johnny Depp -- in Jack Sparrow mode -- is there to free-associate his assessment of the damage this sudden fame did to Strummer's soul).
The real destruction of The Clash, however, came with Strummer's firing of guitarist Mick Jones, apparently for enjoying the role of rock star too much.
These and more laudatory stories are told in the fireside format that Temple presents as an homage to the impromptu bonfire sessions Strummer held at the U.K.'s Glastonbury Festival.
Many recollections are contradictory ("He was a great father/her wasn't there for his kids"), and others, fans though they may be, seem to simply be there for marquee value (besides Bono and Depp, there's John Cusack, Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea and Anthony Kaedis, Martin Scorsese, Jim Jarmusch and Steve Buscemi, who compares acting with Strummer in Jarmusch's Mystery Train to acting with Brando, which is laying it on a little thick).
Whatever you end up thinking about Strummer, Temple (he of the Sex Pistols doc The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle) stops short of hagiography, while exhaustively positing Strummer as one of the most important cultural figures of the 20th century.
You don't have to share his opinion to be impressed by the movie.
(This film is rated 14-A)
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