When the Clash was labeled "The Only Band That Matters," it may have been record company hype, but when I was a teenager, there was probably no band that mattered more to me. The idealism, the earnest anger, the democratic, sometimes clumsy way of mixing styles and sounds -- I am almost as susceptible to it now as I was at 15. This is all by way of disclosure: It's likely that I would have been stirred and moved by "Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten," even if it were the straightforward, VH1-ready rock star biography it might, at first, appear to be. The film, however, is much more than a biography of the Clash's guitarist and lead singer: It's history, criticism, philosophy and politics, played fast and loud.
Directed by Julien Temple, an able and tireless chronicler of the pop life, "Joe Strummer" assembles clips and interviews into a fast-moving timeline. Strummer's voice, captured from radio broadcasts and old conversations, provides narration and companionship. That his presence is limited to audio and archival material provides a sad and subtle reminder of his absence, the void left by his sudden death at 50, from a heart attack, in 2002.
Like Temple's two movies about the Sex Pistols -- the eyewitness "Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle" (1980) and the revisionist "Filth and the Fury" (2000) -- "Joe Strummer" is not so much a portrait as a collage. Sometimes the images are conventionally documentary, serving as literal illustrations of the story. Just as often they provide a kind of free-associative context, reminding us that an individual's life is made up not only of experiences and events but also of ideas, dreams and possibilities. So we are treated to marvelous, rare footage of the Clash in rehearsal and Strummer's previous bands in performance, as well as news video and snippets of the cartoon version of "Animal Farm."
We hear abundant testimony from Strummer's friends, lovers, colleagues and admirers. They are not identified in the movie, though some (Bono, John Cusack, Steve Buscemi, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) are not hard to recognize. Temple gathers them around campfires with other, less well-known people, and by the time the metaphorical significance of the fires is explained, it's clear that they represent Strummer's egalitarian, bohemian spirit.
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The story Temple tells is, like most rock 'n' roll biographies, one of self-invention. Joe Strummer was born John Graham Mellor. His father was a diplomat, and Joe's youth was more cosmopolitan and more privileged than his scruffy, proletarian musical persona might suggest. An art school dropout in the best British rock 'n' roll tradition, he spent the early 1970s as a hippie vagabond, taking the name Woody (as in Guthrie) and bumming and busking around London and other English cities. He was part of the West London squatter scene and the leader of a band called the 101ers when punk rock arrived.
The Clash did not invent punk -- who did is the subject of endless argument among partisans of Malcolm McLaren, John Lydon and the Ramones -- but the band was decisive in infusing its raw, raging energy with a sense of ethical integrity and political commitment. The heart of "Joe Strummer" is the narrative of the band's rise, triumph and eventual unraveling, a tale told by survivors, participants, hangers-on and fans and animated by performances that have lost little of their immediacy or force in the intervening years.
The usual rock-doc motifs are there: trouble with management; drug problems; tensions between Strummer and Mick Jones, the band's other guitarist and creative force. Once the Clash has broken up, in the mid-1980s, there is a long denouement -- for me, I guess it's called adulthood -- during which both Strummer's career and Temple's film lose a bit of steam. But the waning of punk's heat leaves behind a surprising afterglow and allows you to appreciate Joe Strummer's warmth.