The Austin Chronicle

Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten

Rated R, 124 min. Directed by Julien Temple.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Dec. 7, 2007

On the eve of the Clash's 1983 American tour and during a period of increasing internecine skirmishes among the band members, frontman and principal lyricist Joe Strummer went missing. As revealed in Temple's thoroughly exhilarating, horns-and-halos documentary, Strummer was urged to "disappear" by manager Bernie Rhodes, who believed that the media attention generated by the MIA punk rocker would constitute an ace marketing move. When Strummer asked where he ought to go, Rhodes told him to hoof it off to Austin, Texas, where Strummer's old pal Joe Ely lived. Strummer: "So I took the next train to Paris. I thought it'd be a good joke." It still is, and the subterfuge was made even more da-da-Dada by the fact that the wayward rocker ran the Paris Marathon and grew a beard in the interim. (Full disclosure: I saw the Clash on Wednesday, May 18, 1983, at the Amarillo Civic Center Auditorium, and, yes, of course, it changed my life.) Such cunning stuntery was entwined in the genetic material of (né) John Graham Mellor's remarkable life virtually from birth. Not only did this India-born son of a left-leaning British civil servant and a doting "Scottish heather" grow up to front "the only band that matters"; he also, with the fragmenting Clash in tow, worked the stage at Steve Wozniak's proto-Lollapalooza, the U.S. Festival, alongside equally outsized égoïste provocateurs Van Halen and U2 (no mean feat, that). But by the time ’83's chart-topping single "Rock the Casbah" arrived on these shores, the Clash was a band in name only. Strummer's idealistic conundrum – did he get fame or did fame get him? – has a familiar VH1-ish ring to it. But what makes all the young punks ink his crooked-nosed, jug-eared, recognizably rockabillian mug on their scrawny limbs is, in part, what came after the Clash. And it's here that The Future Is Unwritten adroitly fills in the post-’77 blanks, tracing Strummer's post-punk wilderness years: his acting and soundtrack work with Alex Cox, his stint in the Pogues, the ceaseless ease with which he created musical and lyrical agitprop, and the foundation of his final band, the incomparable Mescaleros. Director Temple (who previously helmed the far less affecting Sex Pistols doc The Filth and the Fury) has crafted one of the most compelling documentary portraits of a musician yet made. Like an early Clash number, it's by turns lovely and ugly, loud as bombs and quiet as a revolution's first-thrown stone; it acknowledges the legend while uncovering the truth. In the telling, Temple uses everything he can get his hands on, from newly minted animation sequences and long-forgotten audio interviews to Martin Scorsese (both then and now). He seamlessly edits together a series of campfire reminiscences from friends and family with impossibly rare, wonderfully raw footage of the musician himself. Here is Strummer the frolicsome 10-year-old, Strummer the hippy squatter, Strummer the sneering punk, and, most important of all, Strummer the whole human being, humbled but never hobbled, bloodied but unbowed. He was, and remains, a Sandinistan hombre sin fronteras by way of the UK and your dodgy old turntable, inspiring guerilla guitar dreams in unwritten futures forever. Punk fucking rock, man.

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