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Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten
(No longer in theaters)
The biggest disappointment of Julien Temple’s good-try documentary Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten is that the late rocker doesn’t carry the movie. It’s the film equivalent of what journalists with elusive subjects call a “write-around.” Maybe this was inevitable. In Lester Bangs’s jubilant, balls-out account of touring with the Clash circa 1977, Bangs apologizes for not getting to the heart of Strummer; he spent most of his time with the more exhibitionist Mick Jones. In the film, we hear from others (among them Jones) about Strummer’s anti-Establishment, anti-military, anti-work manifesto, but the man himself doesn’t add the jolt of personality that would drive those words home. It’s not that Strummer (in footage from various periods) is being dodgy by design or, like Dylan, perversely gnomic. It’s just that his features (in some shots he looks like Jerry Seinfeld) don’t match that raspy bellow that’s almost always on key, or the songs that squeeze the fury of punk through the miraculously elastic tube of reggae.
Strummer does resemble Dylan in amusing ways. Early on, he also called himself Woody (for Guthrie), then dumped his hippie-dippie persona (and close friends) in the name of his snarling-punk persona. He didn’t have working-class roots. His father was a diplomat; he grew up in Germany and Egypt and parts of Africa. He went to public (i.e., private) school. His name wasn’t Joe Strummer, either. He was self-invented, but in a way that seems (by default) too selfless to hold the camera.
Temple has plenty of cinematic tricks and willing interview subjects. The girlfriends are vivid—not so much for what they say as for their absence of bitterness, a rarity in that world. Celebrities like John Cusack muse on what it means to be free. Johnny Depp (in full pirate regalia, which somehow fits) praises Strummer’s attack. Bono, posing like the Thinker, says Strummer’s lyrics opened up the world for him. Throughout, Temple points up Strummer’s anti-Fascism with shots of an old black-and-white TV production of 1984 with Peter Cushing as Winston Smith. Whatever: At least the movie never bogs down. But you only get a taste of what made the Clash for a brief period the most exciting band on that side of the Atlantic (the Ramones dominated ours) in an early live performance of “I’m So Bored With the USA,” which makes you want to pogo up and down and throw up your fists. It doesn’t matter who Joe Strummer was. He was that moment, and will never die.