Sunday, May 27, 2007


JOE STRUMMER: THE FUTURE IS UNWRITTEN is another astoundingly well put-together, passionate yet balanced, music documentary from Julien Temple. He tells Strummer's life story in straight-forward chronological order, but he's blessed with archive family films; art-school cartoons and drawings; archive concert footage and Strummer's own humourous and unfailingly honest narration. He tells about his early life - the son of a left-leaning British diplomat incarcerated in an austere public school. He describes himself as a gobby little git and bully. Later, when The Clash have become world-famous and are playing stadium gigs, he's scathing about their self-destructive ego-mania. Finally, when he becomes a champion of world music and a doting father, he mocks himself for becoming his parents.

The assembled friends, family and colleagues take their cue from Strummer himself. They speak with great love but most importantly with the blinkers off. His early friends from the hippie squats in West London speak of him as charismatic, sincere, maddening and finally heart-breaking when he leaves them to join The Clash. The story of the "creative differences" and multiple sackings in The Clash are well known. Strummer comes across as a master lyricist and not interested in money. He was, however, liable to nab your girl, sack you when you became a drug addict, and ruthlessly pursue fame. The more he sought fame as an iconoclast, the more he became uncomfortable with his own iconic status. The doc. then moves through the "wilderness" years, when Strummer drifted through Spain and the US looking for a new sound, battling his record company and his fans' desire for the old classics. He even resurrected The Clash, populated with some bland young men better suited to a boyband. Finally, we see Strummer move into a sort of benevolent middle age as a BBC disc jockey and band member. He seemed happiest when sitting round camp-fires with all manner of people talking about life and making music.

The genius of the documentary is in the editing. Despite being over two hours long it never loses pace and keeps the viewer riveted. Animation is cross-cut with archive footage, TV ads and movie clips for commentary and context and the footage of Strummer's mates sitting round camp-fires all over the world and reminiscing. The use of the camp-fires is a fitting emblem of what Strummer was all about. It's also a pretty nifty cinematic device because they look great and make the interviewers feel at ease, lending an intimacy to their conversations. Julien Temple also makes the inspired decision not to have little subtitles telling us who all the talking heads are. This adds to the feeling of intimacy. It was great to see people as varied as Scorsese, Bez, John Cusack, Bobby Gillespie and Roland Gift chatting about Strummer. The only false note was, curiously, Johnny Depp, who seemed to be immitating what he thought a rock legend should look like. With the other famous talking heads, they mentioned working with Joe or seeing him live. With Depp you got the feeling that he was just being interviewed to look cool by association.......

JOE STRUMMER: THE FUTURE IS UNWRITTEN played Sundance and Dublin 2007. It is currently on release in the UK and Germany and opens in Australia on September 13th.


  1. I really wanna see this, as the Clash are my favourite punk band (after the Buzzcocks). I love the Clash's optimism over the Sex Pistols' nihilism. Sounds like a good film.

  2. Hi Ali - yeah I look forward to hear your thoughts on it - in fact, you are by far more qualified to review it than I am! What really comes across is Joe's optimism - his real belief that people could change stuff by doing it - and his real belief that everyone is interesting. Hence the whole world music thing and the camp fires. The doc doesn't sugar coat things - Strummer acts like a complete wanker sometimes - but the great thing is he always admits it after the fact!

  3. He's always been someone that's been poorly thought of by some people in music: because of his upbringing, he gets labeled a fake or a hypocrite. He's undoubtedly a complex character but he's someone who truly seemed to believe in what he preached, and there ain't many people like that about today.

    BTW, when it comes to reviewing films, you're still better qualified than me! :)

  4. Well, it is clear from the doc that whatever else he was, he was not fake. He was apparently a bit of a misfit in the public school set up anyways, and his dad, while a diplomat, was also a misfit in that he was radical and left wing!