The white hot life of Joe Strummer
BY JASON BLAIR
JOE STRUMMER: THE FUTURE IS UNWRITTEN: Directed by Julian Temple. Cinematography, Ben Cole. Music, The Clash. Starring Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Bono, Steve Buscemi, John Cusack, Johnny Depp, Jim Jarmusch and Matt Dillon. IFC Films, 2007. R. 123 minutes.
I remember the first time I heard it. I was in my bedroom, the cassette of London Calling on loan from a classmate. The cover is ominous, depicting a bass guitar held aloft by its owner just before he annihilates it. The music, more than an hour of it, is equally shattering. An unprecedented mix of punk, rockabilly and ska, London Calling was transformative — for The Clash, it earned them the moniker "The Only Band That Matters" — but never more so than the opening song, the thrillingly immediate title track. "London Calling" is the aural equivalent of helicoptering over a cliff. Sasha Frere-Jones, the New Yorker music critic, once wrote of it, "If you can listen to it without getting a chilly burst of immortality, there is a layer between you and the world."
Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten is a fitting tribute to the singer and lyricist for The Clash, who died suddenly in 2002 of a heart attack. It has an all-access, authoritative feel, due in large part to the volume of richly preserved archival footage, as well as to audio clips from Strummer's stint as a DJ for the BBC World Service. Fiercely anti-establishment, Strummer was also something of a changeling, renaming himself Woody during the student protests of the 1960s and Joe for his tenure with the Clash. (His actual name was John.) For a rock star, albeit an unlikely one, he was always eminently quotable, and by all signs he was smart enough to be comfortable with life's contradictions. As a young man, he felt art school was "the last resort for malingerers and bluffers," so he promptly enrolled in art school. He joined several bands, content to play rockabilly until the arrival of the Sex Pistols, an event he likened to tossing "a grenade into the room" of rock music.
Unfortunately, director Julien Temple (Absolute Beginners) tries too hard to subvert the traditional documentary format. Temple, best known for the most memorable videos of the early MTV era, from ABC to the Kinks to ZZ Top, creates a frenzied, mashed-up feel that appears gimmicky and incoherent. In the first eight minutes alone, Temple uses still photos, newsreels, cartoons, home movies, early film sequences, promotional/tourism footage and a click-wheel viewfinder to set up his story. It's confusing and completely disorienting. The good news is that by the end of the first act, Temple abandons most of these techniques altogether. Once that happens, Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten takes off.
The other Temple idiosyncrasy worth mentioning ultimately proves successful. Instead of filming his contributors in the typical Ken Burns style — which is to say, seated and indoors, their faces viewed in close-up — Temple instead assembles Strummer's many family, friends and collaborators around bonfires outside of L.A., New York and London. That's correct: bonfires. My first reaction, at least until Bono and Johnny Depp showed up, was, Why are homeless people being interviewed about Joe? My second reaction was, Were no buildings available? But slowly, the gatherings take on a family-campfire feel as the participants play Clash and Ramones songs together. None of the contributors are named at any point, a matter I found mildly annoying, but after a while the format grows on you. Other than a few misfires, Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten is an arresting tribute to a true artist, a man wise enough to have said, "If I knew what I was after, I probably wouldn't bother to go after it."
Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten opens Friday, Dec. 7, at the Bijou.