Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten

| November 3, 2007

Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten begins with rare, archival footage of Strummer recording the vocals for the early Clash song “White Riot.” The footage is a cappella and in black and white. Strummer spits out the lyrics with unmitigated fury, barely tethered to the microphone. Each word rips out of his throat with molotov cocktail intensity. Stripped of the music, it’s an incredibly visceral flashcard lesson in what matters most in rock n’ roll–that it moves you to your core.
That is the Clash’s greatest legacy in rock n’ roll. They struck that primal chord of action in you. They did it with their maelstrom of intensity. They did it with unapologetic creative curiosity. They did it with the cocky swagger of youth and the sinewy wisdom of hard won experience. At the heart of it all was the rallying point of Joe Strummer voice. It’s the voice of a complex and remarkable man fueled by an undying love of music and a restless hunger to connect with his fellow man. It’s this man, and his immense influence on the lives of others, that Julien Temple’s profoundly captivating documentary, Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, renders in such a fantastic way.
Temple launches, from that striking opening musical footage into Strummer’s formative years. It’s a kind of “how did we get there?” moment. Though, to his credit, Temple doesn’t fall into the standard chronological telling of the story. Instead, he orchestrates animation, early family films, audio interviews he conducted with Strummer as early as 1976, and industrial film footage to illustrate the seeds of the man to be. It’s an impressionistic look at the key influences that give birth to and shaped Strummer’s populist drive for community and his deep-seated distrust of institutional prejudices. Key among these influential early moments is the suicide of his older brother, who had fallen in with Neo-Nazis before his unexpected death.
From there Temple documents Strummer’s early wandering days, his passion and pursuit of music in his life, his early success with his first London band The 101’ers. Key in this first half tale is Strummer’s early hippie lifestyle and time spent among squatters in late 60’s, early 70’s London. It’s a fabulous portion of Strummer’s life that doesn’t often enter the discussion of his life. It truly illustrates his “one for all, all for one” sense of community and presents an unadulterated look into the importance of that ethos in his life at such a formative stage.
Of course, Strummer was a complex man, who often bedeviled those he loved, just as much as he inspired him. That’s most obvious when he turns his back on the squatters community and his old band, The 101’ers, by joining the Clash and transforming himself into Joe Strummer in the midst of the exploding punk scene of mid 70’s London. It’s here that Temple’s investigation into the essence of Joe Strummer pivots to tell a much deeper story than simply who Joe Strummer was and why.
As the Clash rises and then implodes, Temple tracks Strummer through this peak in his life and music with a collage of archival footage along with personal remembrances of bandmates, fans and friends around bonfires. It’s in this legendary part of Strummer’s story and its inevitable aftermath that the deeper thrust of the picture comes clear. Temple follows Strummer out into the wanderlust that follows for him after the Clash’s demise. In it and against the legacy of the Clash, Strummer wrestles with his deeper convictions–community, speaking for those that can’t, and staying true to one’s beliefs–in the light of his actions in pursuit of fame and getting his message out there. It’s here that the man behind the myth is captured most deftly by Temple’s documentary. His essence is unfurled against the background of his many accomplishments and you truly get a sense of why he touched so many people with his words and music.
Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten is a wonderful accomplishment by Julien Temple. To capture so many sides of this man and then to orchestrate such a heartfelt and complete depiction of him in the process is magnificent. Temple shows virtuoso command of the documentary form with the orchestration of so many of Strummer’s avowed beliefs in simple choices in the construction of the film–setting his interviewers around bonfires, which Strummer espoused as a means of community bonding, the simple boom box coupled with Strummer’s voice from his BBC radio show book ending segments. All in all this is a must see picture, an incredible tale of an incredible man. Do yourself a favor and catch Julien Temple’s Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten. It’s bound to move you, too.

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