The late punk rock legend Joe Strummer is rendered fully human in Julien Temple's engrossing and all-encompassing portrait "Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten."Pic is the creative equal to Strummer's aggressive signature, ensuring "Strummer" will be in demand among both longtime Clash fans and pop culture mavens for theatrical and beyond.
The late punk rock legend Joe Strummer is rendered fully human in Julien Temple’s engrossing and all-encompassing portrait “Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten.” Strummer’s strange career, from his sudden burst onto the punk rock scene of the mid-’70s with the Clash to his post-Clash burnout, exile and gradual re-emergence, provides Temple with unusually dramatic and complex elements to explore a brilliant, if mercurial, creative musical life. Pic is the creative equal to Strummer’s aggressive signature, ensuring “Strummer” will be in demand among both longtime Clash fans and pop culture mavens for theatrical and beyond.
The general biographical outline is told in straightforward, chronological terms, but the details, archival clips and dynamic staging of guests interviewed by Temple are what give the film its throbbing vitality. To viewers of Temple’s previous rock doc “Glastonbury,” several familiar links are apparent — particularly Strummer’s late-life love for making spontaneous communities and groups around outdoor bonfires during such music events as the Glastonbury festival.
As each on-camera subject (except, amusingly, Martin Scorsese, the only one in suit and tie) talks about Strummer at bonfires arranged and lensed in London, Los Angeles and New York, Temple relates Strummer’s unusual childhood and development.
Strummer was born John Mellors in 1950 to a Brit diplomatic family stationed in Ankara, Turkey. Temple (with an ace editing trio of Mark Reynolds, Tobias Zaldua and Niven Howie, and astonishing archival material culled by Sam Dwyer) deploys several amusing visual techniques to illustrate Strummer’s early life. His family’s globetrotting looks like a nutty travelogue, while his miserable life in public school is shown with stock footage and several clips from Lindsay Anderson’s caustic 1968 “If….” Temple actually began documenting Strummer as early as 1976, the Clash’s first year, and he uses several audio interviews with the singer-songwriter to fill in the personal details.
Friends and cousins recall a rebel without a cause (his slicked-back hair with the Clash is James Dean personified) who had no desire for a conventional life.
Pic doesn’t speculate on whether the impact of his brother’s affiliation with neo-Nazis and sudden suicide may have informed Strummer’s later impassioned songs against Nazism and England’s racist National Front. After some vagabonding, Strummer joins a squatters’ movement, leading to formation of his first significant band, The 101’ers.
Stunned at the mid-’70s entry of the Sex Pistols and its savage punk sound, Strummer realized his taste for rockabilly needed rethinking and gladly joined producer Bernie Rhodes’ new group, the Clash.
Temple’s early rehearsal footage of the nascent band is remarkable, recording a group of young guys who barely know how to play chords. It’s here that Strummer adopts his stage name.
Bassist Paul Simonon is the only bandmate who demurred being involved with pic, but co-writer-singer-guitarist Mick Jones, drummers Nicky Headon and Terry Chimes are terrific and voluble commentators for Temple’s camera.
Even though running time clocks just past two hours, the length is justified given the band’s enormous fame and its ups and downs, including the colorfully described personality clash between Strummer and Jones, and a full exploration of the group’s willingness to stray from pure punk to the more eclectic sound that jibed with Strummer’s more internationalist sensibilities and produced hits in the States like “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”
A sign of the band’s impact is the pic’s lineup of Strummer’s famous friends and collaborators, including Scorsese and fellow filmmakers Jim Jarmusch and Sara Driver, thesps Matt Dillon, Johnny Depp, John Cusack and Steve Buscemi, and U2’s Bono, for whom the Clash was a life-changing band.
Temple’s images of an aging, slightly pudgier Strummer (happy dad of two daughters) touchingly conveys how life catches up with even the wildest rebels, and a bright denouement tracing Strummer’s musical rebirth with the Mascaleros is sure to make the shock of his death at age 50 of a heart attack startling even to fans who think they’re experts on the rocker.
With bonfires raging around the edges of the frame, interview segments feel like communal be-ins rather than standard docu-talk. Song selection is astonishing in its range, abetted by clips of Strummer’s own great-sounding world music radio show for BBC’s World Service.