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Revolution rock

Documentary pays tribute to Clash frontman Joe Strummer 

Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten captures the life and times of the British punk-rock icon. (Maximum Films)
Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten captures the life and times of the British punk-rock icon. (Maximum Films)

British director Julien Temple, the man behind the Sex Pistols chronicles The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle and The Filth and the Fury, trains his camera lens on a more admirable punk saga in his latest music documentary. Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten pays affectionate tribute to the late frontman of the Clash, who was not just a trail-blazing rocker, but a political activist, family man and musical cosmopolitan. Sure, his Doc Marten-shod feet had their share of clay, but here he comes across as a much warmer, wiser and better-spoken figure than that surly cynic, the Pistols’ Johnny Rotten.

This movie is a bit of a Strummer love-in — an appropriate term given his latter-day reconciliation of punk and hippie ideals. Friends, family and colleagues gather round various crackling bonfires — a favourite Strummer activity — to share their fond memories of the man. They range from old art-school pals to Clash bandmates Mick Jones, Terry Chimes and Topper Headon, to celeb fans like John Cusack, Matt Dillon, Steve Buscemi and Martin Scorsese. U2’s Bono, who was inspired by an early Clash gig in Dublin, sums up Strummer’s politically charged music as a rock ’n’ roll sea change. Suddenly, Bono says, “integrity became more important than driving a Rolls-Royce into a swimming pool.”

Strummer, born John Graham Mellor in Turkey in 1952, came by his politics and worldly outlook via his upbringing. The son of a British Foreign Office diplomat with liberal views, Strummer spent his early years in Egypt, Mexico and Germany. As a budding musician at the Newport College of Art in Wales, he adopted the name “Woody,” in a nod to left-wing balladeer Woody Guthrie. After his troubled older brother David flirted with fascism prior to committing suicide, Strummer would make the neo-Nazi National Front a target during early Clash shows.

Strummer’s politics could be a hard sell with rock audiences during the “Me Decade.” I remember seeing the Clash get booed at a Seattle concert in 1982, when they opened for the Who — the original Rolls-in-the-swimming-pool band. Arena-rock fans weren’t interested in hearing Strummer’s reports on Nicaragua’s Sandinista revolution or cultural oppression in the Middle East. What a far cry from today’s politically aware audiences.

By the time the Clash were playing arenas, it was the beginning of the end. Drummer Headon, a heroin addict, had been ousted in 1982 and lead guitarist Jones split the following year. After briefly fronting a new Clash lineup, Strummer took off to Spain; by 1986, the band was history. After that, Strummer dabbled in film acting (Straight to Hell, Mystery Train) and scoring (Walker, Grosse Pointe Blank) and did a stint as vocalist for Irish band the Pogues. He found his bearings again in the ’90s with the Mescaleros, a band that mixed original songs with Clash material. In late 2002, just a month after finishing a Mescaleros tour that included an onstage reunion with Mick Jones at a London firefighter’s benefit, Strummer died suddenly at age 50. The prosaic cause of death was a congenital heart ailment.

Julien Temple, director of Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten. (Ben Cole/Maximum Films)
Julien Temple, director of Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten. (Ben Cole/Maximum Films)

Temple’s frenetic film emulates the restlessness of its subject. The Future Is Unwritten is a manic audio-visual collage pasted together out of bits and pieces of interviews, concert and studio performances, plus home movies, Strummer’s cartoons and heaps of archival footage. Where The Filth and the Fury juxtaposed Rotten’s performances with scenes from Laurence Olivier’s campy Richard III, here, Temple keeps cutting to a pair of vintage George Orwell films: a 1954 BBC version of 1984 and the 1954 cartoon adaptation of Animal Farm. The two serve as shorthand for the conformity and oppression the Clash were rebelling against as well as the Orwellian vision that often informed their songs.

Temple can sometimes swamp a film with too much random footage; this was the chief problem with his last doc, Glastonbury. He keeps a tighter rein on that habit here, but his attention-deficit editing is still a bit much. At times, you wish he would ease up on the pace — and maybe throw in a few subtitles to identify his lesser-known interviewees. His most inspired touch — apart from the film’s bonfire theme — is to string his material together with clips from Strummer’s London Calling show on the BBC World Service. That program, which aired from 1998 until his death, allowed Strummer to showcase his favourite music; Temple, in turn, uses it as a running soundtrack of his subject’s diverse influences, which ranged from Eddie Cochran to Harry Belafonte. Strummer’s radio commentary also makes up for the dearth of interviews with the man. (Sadly, he didn’t live long enough to give us the kind of detailed recollections that the surviving Pistols provided for The Filth and the Fury.)

As Temple showed us in that film, the Pistols — particularly Rotten and Sid Vicious — were the court jesters of the U.K. punk movement. Strummer, on the other hand, was its self-described “warlord.” His jagged, angry work with the Clash was an all-out campaign against the smooth complacency of commercial rock. But the man himself wasn’t bellicose (unless facing an annoying interviewer); rather, he seems to have been gentle and sensitive. He reportedly cried when he saw his Clash song Rock the Casbah misappropriated as a slogan by U.S. bombers during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Of course, the Clash isn’t the first and only band to have its music borrowed and misused; increasingly, the musical past is being indiscriminately mined to score films, TV and, most heinously, commercials. (Admittedly, often to the profit of the songwriters.) But Joe Strummer wrote songs to attack the imperialists and capitalists, not to accompany wars or sell sports cars. If nothing else, The Future Is Unwritten puts his music and, by extension, British punk back in their proper political context.

Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten opens in Toronto on Feb. 1.

Martin Morrow writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.

CBC does not endorse and is not responsible for the content of external sites - links will open in new window.

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