JOE STRUMMER: THE FUTURE IS UNWRITTENNR
Arguably the greatest and most influential rock band since The Beatles, The Clash were avatars of the punk movement, highly political and incredibly passionate. All three qualities were to a large extent due to their nominal leader, Joe Strummer, who comes off in this terrific documentary as a highly flawed, but incredibly likeable, and scarily talented human being.
Son of a career British diplomat, Strummer—real name John Mellor—was born in Turkey and spent his early years in Iran, Egypt, Malawi and Mexico. A rebellious failure at school, he soon dropped out and began busking on London street corners. He eventually hooked up with Topper Headon, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon to form The Clash, and in the late ’70s and early ’80s the band was as big as they come—albums like London Calling (widely regarded as one of the greatest rock albums of all time) and Sandinista were groundbreaking in their politics and mix of styles, and the group’s stage shows were legendary for their balls-out frenzy and entertainment value.
But like many successful bands, The Clash broke up over the usual cocktail of personality conflicts and drug issues. Strummer, who always seemed uncomfortable with massive fame, went into a funk for several years until he emerged in the 1990s with The Mescaleros, a tight group which restored his confidence as a musician and proved popular with critics and fans. Unfortunately, he didn’t have enough time to enjoy his newfound success—Strummer died in 2002 at age 50 of a coronary embolism.
Director Julian Temple, whose Sex Pistols documentary, The Filth and the Fury, is one of the finest of its genre, has taken Strummer’s life and work and turned it into a two-hour film that rocks from beginning to end. Incorporating newsreel clips, concert footage, animation, scenes from films like 1984 and If, plus numerous talking-head interviews with friends and fans (Bono, Johnny Depp, Matt Dillon, Jim Jarmusch, Joe Ely, Flea), he has created a collage-like work that appreciates Strummer the artist, but never fails to point out his failures as a human being. For even though Strummer was a major contributor to such indelible rock anthems as “London Calling,” “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?,” “Rock the Casbah” and “The Magnificent Seven,” it’s also obvious he could be a manipulative jerk and womanizer who slept with his bandmates’ girlfriends.
Yet there’s no doubt his idealism and love for his work influenced multitudes, and some of the testimonials in the film are incredibly heartfelt, such as when Bono says the thing that pisses him off the most about The Clash is that they’re no longer around to make great music. Just about everyone in the film seems to take this tack, and even former adversaries like Mick Jones reflect fondly on their time with Strummer.
At one point in the film, Strummer is quoted saying, “Ya gotta give it all ya got, or forget it.” It’s a perfect epitaph for this imperfect but gifted human being, whose performance footage practically burns up the screen. And in capturing Strummer’s complex nature on film, Julian Temple has paid proper homage to one of rock’s most important artists.