Notes on Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten

I had mixed reactions to the DVD version of the 2007 documentary Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten. The film begins with some nice footage of Joe singing “White Riot” in the studio without any music. He looks hopped up on speed. We learn too that his father was a diplomat who travelled a great deal, which helps explain the international political focus of Clash songs. And much of the concert footage of the film is excellent. Strummer himself fully deserves all of the accolades he received in the film from the likes of Bono (a true fan), Steve Buscemi, John Cusack, Johnny Depp (who looked like his pirate persona), Matt Dillon, Flea, and Jim Jarmusch.

I mainly had problems with the intrusive way the documentary was arranged. Director Julien Temple (of The Filth and the Fury) seemed nervous about ever boring the viewer, so he adds animation and ironic footage from Animal Farm, 1984, even scenes from If . . . where Malcolm McDowell shoots down schoolmasters from a rooftop. He also tends to cut away from Clash concert footage when I wished he would let it be. Also, he kept cutting to various friends and relations of Strummer chatting outside at night by a fire, I guess to honor Strummer’s love of fireside discussions later in his life. I would have preferred more footage from the Clash’s heyday and less recent summarizing about Strummer and nostalgia, since punk doesn’t lend itself to nostalgia anyway.

Strummer talks of the “do it yourself” ethos of punk rock, and Julien Temple conveys the ironies well of the Clash becoming tremendously successful around the time of Combat Rock. Still, as no doubt Temple knows, one has to be careful with this kind of repackaging of the experience of a band like the Clash. Film techniques can too easily distort or sentimentalize the original message, which is still best conveyed by the songs themselves.