I remember the first time I heard the klaxon call of "London Calling." The needle dropped on side one, track one of The Clash's 1979 double record and there it was, like boots on pavement, a joyfully militant march rolling over the horizon -- inevitable. The lyrics herald an apocalypse, "The ice age is coming/ The sun's zooming in/ Meltdown expected/ The wheat is growing thin/ A nuclear error, but I have no fear/ Cause London is drowning and I -- live by the river!" Joe Strummer's hoarse voice was calling out to disaffected youth around the world, encouraging us to fall in step behind The Clash. It was 1979, "the only band that matters" was leaving England and entering their world domination phase.
Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten is a loving tribute to the punk icon who was the conscience in front of The Clash. A collage that brings together newsreel, home movie, animation, campfire interviews and clips from British films including 1984 and Animal Farm, Julien Temple's biography captures the cut and paste construction of a persona, a band and a scene from the upheaval of London in the late sixties and early seventies.
Born in Ankara, Turkey, the son of a British diplomat, Strummer spent his early childhood in Iran, Egypt, Malawi and Mexico before his parents packed him and his older brother off to boarding school. Perhaps this early experience is what lead to the internationalism found in The Clash's later albums, most especially their 1980 triple disc, Sandinista!
Strummer is a restless character, an activist prone to wandering, who finds his way to a famous London squat and becomes a busker, a street musician, forming the rockabilly group, The 101ers to raise money for his community. The 101ers find success in the mid-seventies London music scene, but are blown off the stage one night when The Sex Pistols open for them. Shortly thereafter, Strummer is recruited into The Clash.
For me, this is the most interesting part of the documentary, because it illustrates how Strummer's iconic punk rock persona was a construction, a creation of his own device and of his particular time. Strummer went from anarchist hippy to The Clash's front man over night, by changing clothes and hairstyle, adopting a harder attitude and shunning his old friends. Funny thing is, The Clash always seemed more roots rock and rockabilly than most of their punk peers, including the Pistols, perhaps that is why they became so successful in America and beyond.
The Future Is Unwritten kicks into high gear when The Clash hit the big time. The vertigo of international touring is captured in the film's increasingly frenetic pace. Temple's collage begins to swirl, elements piling on as the band is buoyed by and begins to suffer under the weight of their huge international success. Ultimately, Strummer must face the paradox of being the righteous front man for "the only band that matters" and the crass reality of arena rock.
Were The Clash done in by their own political righteousness? Did their punk rock uniforms cease to fit? Did they expect the crowd to hear what they were saying above the roar? (During the first Gulf War, Strummer is horrified when he sees news footage of American soldiers writing "Rock the Casbah" on bombs destined for Iraq.) The whole cool school -- Jarmusch, Depp, Bono, Flea, Scorcese, et al. -- is in attendance to testify to the band's importance.
After such mind-boggling mega success, Strummer must spend years in the wilderness processing what happened and what he will do next. In the end, the icon had to become human again. The Future Is Unwritten builds up and then tears away multiple layers of image to find the man hiding deep inside.
Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten opens November 9, 2007.