Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Film Review: Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten

Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten
Dir. Julien Temple, 2007
Grade: B

Download: The Clash - "London Calling"
Download: The Clash - "I Fought The Law"
Download: The Clash - "Lost In The Supermarket"
Download: The Clash - "Rock the Casbah"
Download: The Clash - "Should I Stay or Should I Go?"
Download: The Clash - "Rudie Can't Fail"
Download: The Clash - "Stay Free"
Download: The Clash - "This Is Radio Clash"
Download: The Clash - "Spanish Bombs"
Download: The Clash - "Tommy Gun"
Download: The Clash - "White Riot"
Download: Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros - "Johnny Appleseed"
Download: Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros - "Willesden To Cricklewood"
Download: The 101ers - "Keys to Your Heart"

There are two distinct types of particularly earnest young men: the first is a long-haired, lanky and bearded fellow and the other is an earnest, but also cynical, lanky short-haired young man. One is a hippie and the other is a punk. Both question the very nature of authority. However, one key difference is that the punk is overtly antagonistic, bordering on nihilistic; the other, while also anti-establishment, focused more on beauty, peace and love.

One of the many, many friends, admirers, family members and former bandmates (just to name a few) who appear in the documentary Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten makes the observation that Strummer started out as a hippie, evolved into a punk, and then, after a 10-year hiatus following the dissolution of The Clash, emerged a hippie again.

The Future Is Unwritten shows how, why and where Strummer became a fascinating complex figure in rock. And Strummer was nothing if not complex. He was the son of a diplomat who played a key part in making some of the most confrontational music of its time. He was a genuine individual who insisted on telling the truth at all costs, but who also made up new identities for himself. He grew up relatively privileged, but became a spokesperson for the disenfranchised. Then, as if that weren't enough of a conundrum, he became rich and famous for being said spokesperson.

Temple throughly explores these questions by taking the exact same approach he did for The Sex Pistols in The Filth And The Fury. That is, using archival footage (including film of Strummer's bands before The Clash, especially the 101ers), home films and bits of pop culture to create ironic juxtaposition (dig those Animal Farm references) and make commentary about the subject himself. Temple's other artistic device is to frame the film by using campfires--if you're a fan, you'll understand why--as narrative motifs. He also chooses not to include any titles for the people who are speaking about Strummer.

These artistic approaches have their advantages--with the former, one gets the sense of how Strummer struggled with how to balance his ideals with the pursuit of artistic excellence and success (something a certain Schmevin Schmarnes may want to take note of); the latter creates an warm, inviting atmosphere where those who knew Strummer best can open up about him, which in turn makes for a more informative, revealing film.

The problem is that Temple's stylistic touches over threaten to overwhelm the film itself. In The Filth And The Fury, contrasting Johnny Rotten with Richard III seemed both darkly appropriate and ironic. In The Future Is Unwritten, the contrast Temple draws between Joe Strummer and Napolean from Animal Farm is fitting (for reasons involving Strummer's personal life), but also is jarring and takes the viewer out of the realism of the film.

Fuck, how else could one react to a talking pig?

As far as not having titles identifying those speaking at the campfires, it's pretty obvious that we don't need to have Bono (who makes his 19,233rd rockumentary appearance with this film), Steve Buscemi or John Cusack introduced to us. But when a relative unknown speaks eloquently and truthfully about Strummer's music and life--Don Letts, for example--it's incredibly annoying that we don't get to find out who he is. During this time, the viewer should be reflecting upon Strummer's accomplishments and legacy. Instead, we're referring to people who aren't Johnny Depp as "what's-his-nuts".

Still, there's a lot of information about Strummer that the film delves into with humor, pathos and passion. While some more insight into the records that The Clash made (I don't think Give Em Enough Rope was even discussed), this is a documentary about Joe Strummer, and a fine one at that.

Those who want to see an insightful film about an undeniably influential, talented and ingenious performer and an interesting man should be able to disregard any artistic indulges in the name of watching a solid documentary about their idol.

The Clash Official Website

(Jonathan Graef)

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, the man with the dreadlocks is Don Letts. He was the DJ at the Roxy, John Lydon's roommate, director of most of the Clash's videos and Mick Jones' songwriting partner in B.A.D. He is now a respected film director.

3:34 PM  
Blogger Jon said...

Thank you! I'll amend the review as soon as I can.

3:41 PM  

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