"Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten"

Dennis Harvey November 6, 2007

Was there ever a more politically radical rock band that got more apolitically huge than The Clash? In a word: No. That conflict between idealism and commercial success was one major factor in the oft-conflicted life of late Clash frontman Joe Strummer. He died peacefully in 2002, aged 50, of a previously undiagnosed congenital heart defect. Too soon indeed, though he’d dropped off the radar many years before for most of the international millions who’d enjoyed The Clash at their commercial peak.

Almost everyone over the age of 25 and under 60, it seems, has a Clash story of their own. (Mine: I saw them play a Detroit roller rink in 1979. It was an off-skates affair: That venue was one of the area’s first to host occasional “punk music” nights.) But it turns out there are a lot of Strummer stories left to tell. A good share of them are in Julien Temple’s terrific new documentary “Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten.”

Nobody could be better suited to make this film than Temple, who was apparently trying to make a film about The Clash as early as 1976, then jumped ship to become the principal chronicler of The Sex Pistols. They eventually became friends and realized their early histories were almost identical. If Temple’s sprawling documentary overview of the longtime Glasbonbury music festival last year was something of a disorganized mess, here his focus is crisp and deeply satisfying. Of course, he’s also got a colorful story to tell.

The angry political-punk rocker of the Clash wore many other hats during his half-century on the planet, it emerges. Among the biographical nuggets you may have forgotten or never knew in the first place: He was born in Turkey, raised in Egypt and Mexico due to his father’s diplomatic posts before being sent to an English boarding school. He then became a hippie art student; dropped out to live in the early 70s London squatter’s scene; abandoned poppier band The 101ers on the brink of success to join the Clash after seeing the Pistols (who’d opened for them).

There’s a lot more fascinating stuff here, including Strummer’s pivotal role in The Clash’s demise, his wayward film/music dabblings in film and music afterward, and a vintage clip of Van Halen’s big-haired mantramp David Lee Roth telling an interviewer “The Clash… just take things too damn seriously, honey.” Those unfamiliar with the band or the era may feel a little lost, since Temple doesn’t identify participants on-screen. (This was a much worse problem in “Glastonbury: The Movie,” which covered nearly 40 years of rock history.) But most folks will recognize a lot of them, from fellow Clash members to Jim Jarmusch, Fine Young Cannibals’ Roland Gift, and SF’s own original punkstress Pearl Harbour.

The only jarring note is provided by some Hollywood types who seem barely relevant. At least Steve Buscemi, Matt Dillon and John Cusack really were friends with Strummer. But what are Johnny Depp and Bono doing here? I love Depp the actor, and appreciate Bono singlehandedly trying to make the world a better place. But whenever playing themselves in public, they invariably seem to be polishing their own coolness credentials while coming off as pretentious, overdressed twats. Depp’s hairdo alone here is so artistic it hurts. And Bono, just take off the damn sunglasses already — you’re being interviewed around a nocturnal bonfire! Those fleeting ego indulgences aside, “The Future is Unwritten” is full of delightful insights, great archival footage, and quirky directorial choices (including some simple animation). It’s a longish documentary, but the two hours fly by. If you thought you knew everything worth knowing about The Clash and Strummer, as I did, Temple & Co. will prove you wrong.