In all walks of life there are standout groups or individuals that deserve a telling of their story. Julien Temple in 2000 directed The Filth and the Fury, a documentary of the often times misunderstood punk pioneers Sex Pistols. Sensing punk-rock deserved another telling story, he’s returned with Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, a retrospective of the life and times of Joe Strummer, the lead singer of The Clash.
Temple starts the story at the very beginning, chronicling Strummer’s childhood days, which would be considered far from an average kids upbringing. That’s because his father was an English diplomat and routinely packed up the family and moved them to varying locales like: Turkey (where Joe was born as John Graham Mellor), Egypt, Mexico and Germany. When he hit the age of nine, he and his brother David were shipped off to boarding school. This lack of a steady family unit, the untimely death of his brother by suicide years later and the social upheaval occurring in London helped shape his angry and perverse attitude that was the mainstay of The Clash.
Midway through Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, it becomes more of a Behind the Music expose, where we’re given glimpses into the rise of Strummer’s star power and the obvious ugly fall that follows. Temple captures this through campfire interviews with various friends, family and people influenced by the moment, by stock footage of concerts and home movies, and via archived audio clips of Strummer himself. The best of this portion is hearing the tales from friends, and even more so, ex-friends about the complete transformation he underwent to become the man we all came to connect with. It was startling to learn of the steep price he paid for fame.
The final segment of the movie is the reconciliation period. It’s where Joe finally rediscovers himself and comes to ease with who he is and what he was. He tried his hand at Hollywood (acting and soundtracks), put more of a focus on raising his two daughters and formed a new group, The Mescaleros to release his newfound inspiration. It ends with his unexpected death from a congenital heart defect at the age of 50.
But enough of the recap, here’s what made the movie a treat to watch. First, it was great to hear the stories retold by those who knew Joe personally. Even those that felt wronged by him, spoke highly of his character. A small distraction to this was the fact that I had no idea who most of these people were. Temple made the decision to keep everyone interviewed for the film anonymous – perhaps to give equal weighting to the words of non-celebrities as compared to the words of Bono or Johnny Depp. Whatever the case was, I would have liked to know better the relationship between the interviewees and Strummer. Another great aspect of Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, is the music. Everything that influenced Joe was showcased in some form or another; it is deftly woven into the film to capture the intensity of the moment. While your reading this, I’ll be seeking out the soundtrack album.
For the record, I wasn’t a man who heeded the anti-establishment cry driven home by the music of Joe Strummer. Not by a long shot. But Temple accurately captures what fueled Joe and his legions of fans to become so rabid in their stances. And whether you’re a casual fan (like me) or a person who was moved to change, Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten is a captivating watch (even at a staggering 123 minutes of run time). This movie provided a great insight into the life of arguably one of the most iconic punks of our time and should be required viewing for all college level music courses.