Had I been skeptical about seeing Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, Julien Temple's new documentary about the life of the Clash's iconic frontman, the producers would have only needed to show me the first thirty seconds of the movie and all doubts would have been erased. It's about as perfect of a start as you can get.
Joe Strummer stands alone in a recording studio, microphone in front of him, headphones over his ears. It's black-and-white footage, and the singer looks incredibly young. Before he opens his mouth, an audio snippet is dubbed over the image. An unknown voice asks what he'd like to have listed under his name on the screen. Should it be the name of his new band, the Mescaleros? Or the Clash? Joe responds, his voice gravelly and warm, immediately familiar. "'Punk rock warlord,'" he says. "With 'warlord' as one word."
Then the man on the screen explodes, singing a raw, fiery version of one of the Clash's most enduring hits. This footage is of Joe Strummer laying down the vocals for "White Riot" back in 1977. The performance contains all the elements that make Strummer a fascinating personality. He sounds passionate, edgy, and like he could lose the note in just another syllable. The singing seems spontaneous, but it's obviously planned. Every word is not only felt, but meant.
Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten is a comprehensive biography, birth to death, 1952 to 2002. It's a loving portrait, but an honest one. Joe's praises are sung, but he's also called out for his faults. More than one person calls him a coward, and the years of festering hurt surface in anecdotes of friends cut off when Joe Mowery, who had transformed himself from diplomat's son to a hippy squatter named "Woody," reinvented everything he was to become Joe Strummer, the quintessential punk rocker. At the same time, they all respect him so much, the honesty comes without bitterness. It's about remembering Joe for who he really was, all the versions of him, however it was he cast himself.
Julien Temple is no stranger to the punk music scene, having chronicled the Sex Pistols for their Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle in 1980 and again in the 2000 documentary The Filth and the Fury. He was certainly no stranger to Joe Strummer, who had once hired Temple as his own replacement in a pre-Clash band before deciding he could sing as well as Julien and firing him. Strummer even featured prominently in the director's 2006 music festival chronicle, Glastonbury. Thus, it's all the more remarkable that the filmmaker could make a tribute of this kind without over-glorifying his subject. (Clearly, the sting of that sacking has faded, as well, saving Joe Strummer from receiving a vengeful hatchet job.)
For Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, Temple employs his usual style, putting the movie together like a collage. He combines photos, old footage, and new interviews with animation made from Joe Strummer's own drawings and clips from movies like If.... and the old cartoon version of Animal Farm. His best narrative tool, however, is the spoken word portions of Joe from the radio show he deejayed. Not only does this give us a chance to hear the singer in his own words, but it provides Temple with a playlist of Strummer's influences. He weaves songs by Elvis Presley, Eddie Cochran, and the Ramones in with Clash and Mescaleros tracks, all introduced by Strummer himself. The driving rhythm of the music is also the driving force of Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, keeping our toes tapping even when the director lingers too long on a moment, letting a clip go when loving scissors might have been in order.
So heavy is the focus on Joe Strummer, the director even makes the decision not to identify any of the speakers he interviews, which ranges from friends, colleagues, and family to famous fans like Johnny Depp and John Cusack. It's as if to say that no one else really matters in this portrait, that it's all Joe and nothing but Joe. The range of people chosen is purposeful, trying to find the true image of a man who showed a different face to different people. Is it possible this is how we are all best remembered, not by any one person that knows us best, but from the conflicting snippets we share with the various people we encounter?
Despite Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten ending in the most logical of places, with the singer's passing four years ago, Temple doesn't hold too long on the sadness of it. Instead, he leaves us with the happiness that the musician had found in the end. After the years of being in one of the biggest bands in the world, of pursuing a musical vision that was as all-consuming as the politics were precise, it took Strummer a long time to come to terms with his fame and his legacy. In his last years, he had found new life with the Mescaleros and an even more inclusive musical vision. For all the inconsistencies of Strummer's youth, the image that Temple leaves us with is of a generous man who had finally extended his generosity to himself, cutting himself loose from the pressure and just enjoying life.
The artist who had brought joy to so many had found his own version of it. His example, and the lesson of Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, is that tomorrow really is another day, and we never know what postive things we may find there. Good or bad, at least we'll have Joe Strummer's music to carry with us. The future may be unwritten, but the soundtrack isn't. In that, Joe Strummer's memory and influence endures.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.