Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten

Review by © Jane Freebury

Unless I blinked and missed it, there wasn’t a subtitle or intertitle in sight during this two-hour tribute to the late Joe Strummer, the lead singer and lyricist for the British punk rock band The Clash during the 1970s and 80s. Someone at one point said their sound was the roar of the city. A good metaphor, I think.

It would be easy to get lost on the tide of information if it wasn’t expertly put together. However, this remarkable documentary journey through several decades of popular culture – and the lifetime of one of its leading figures – is smoothly and expertly orchestrated by director Julien Temple, who did such a good job with The Filth and the Fury doco on the Sex Pistols some years back.

Strummer died in 2002 at the age of 50, unexpectedly and of natural causes, the film is at pains to point out. By all account he was a complex man who tried to make sense of his contradictions. The son of a diplomat and a former public schoolboy, he became one of the founders of punk. An art-school ‘malingerer’ and a ‘mouthy little git’, he went on to make good, but when he was at the height of his fame he was dismayed by his success. At least, that’s what he says, though others would disagree.

His early life is told with snippets of home movies, images from abroad where the family lived on postings, clips from movies like Animal Farm and Lindsay Anderson’s public school drama If, and other fragments that build a mosaic of influences the singer was exposed to from a young age.

When he and his elder brother were still in short pants their parents sent them ‘home’ to boarding school in England. It was where the revolt began for Strummer and school grades were abysmal, though he did enjoy Scouts and took a penchant for building campfires for community get-togethers into later life. It is the motif throughout the film, with interviews from friends and acquaintances recorded at gatherings around communal campfires.

Celebrities like Steve Buscemi, Johnny Depp, John Cusack appear in the glow of firelight – somewhere above Los Angeles by the look of it – to talk about the influence Strummer had on their world. Another campfire near the Thames with the squatters, former partners and friends from the years prior to international fame give other insights.

If this film were hagiography, it would be strictly for the converted, but it is a documentary in the best sense – observational, dispassionate and really well researched – and it is terrifically well made.

4 stars