Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten
By Andrea Warner
He became the poster boy for the punk movement, as famous for his politics as he was for his snarling stage presence. Now the lead singer of The Clash is the subject of Julien Temple’s fascinating but spotty Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten. While Unwritten effectively illustrates how a collection of moments can affect the zeitgeist of a generation, it never quite gets inside the mystery of the man himself.
Born to a diplomat father who was known for challenging authority, Strummer and his older brother David lived in five different countries by the time they were in grade school. Temple gets the details right and lingers for the perfect amount of time on some of the tough revelations, such as David’s suicide and Strummer identifying his brother’s body, all by the age of 18.
The large midsection of Unwritten is devoted to The Clash, and there’s plenty of volatile material here that should have been covered in an entirely separate film. Strummer’s politics provided the thrust of The Clash’s power-to-the-people message, but it wasn’t all he was. Yet Unwritten devotes more than half of its running time to The Clash’s hirings, firings and ego explosions, while the 10 years Strummer spent trying to exorcise that band from his system is wrapped up in about six minutes.
Referred to briefly as the “wilderness years,” Temple treads very lightly on Strummer’s own dark period following the breakup of The Clash, when he retreated from the public. The film hints that he may have become a preacher for a short time. Say what? This is the consistent frustration with Unwritten: the dots aren’t connected enough to fully realize Strummer as an icon and as a person. Friends, musicians and a variety of celebrities appear throughout the film, but Temple makes no attempt to identify individuals beyond their names, and offers no explanation about their connection to Strummer. It's distracting when Johnny Depp suddenly shows up, but it’s downright disconcerting when Matt Dillon comes aboard.
That said, Unwritten has plenty of momentum, and there are many reasons to recommend it. The imagery is wonderful and intersperses archival footage, fictionalized scenes, animations of Strummer’s art, scenes from Orwell’s Animal Farm and present-day interviews with a truly varied assortment of people gathered around campfires. Throughout, Strummer often acts as a narrator to his own life, with sound clips culled from interviews and his popular radio show, London Calling. Like The Clash’s music and the do-it-yourself punk ethos, Unwritten feels like it colours outside the lines of the traditional documentary form, and this is where it succeeds as a fitting tribute to the original “punk rock warlord.”