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High and Dry

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.

When Jean-Jacques Beineix’s thriller Diva opened in this country in the unstylish year of 1982, MTV hadn’t yet become a cultural force and films in which style could be justified for its own sake were the province of the avant-garde. Diva was like something beamed down from the Planet of Cool. Restored by Rialto Pictures in a print that colloquializes the clunkier subtitles, the film seems more grounded than it did 25 years ago—but only because, thanks to music videos and computer-generated imagery, the inorganic is now the rule, not the exception. Diva seems organic through and through. What could be more natural than the juxtaposition of the industrial and the New Wave—the hero’s crumbling concrete walls and the bright-pink vinyl coat of Thuy An Luu as a pubescent Vietnamese shoplifter. (The superrealist auto-wreck paintings against those walls conjure up J. G. Ballard and the world as a simulacrum.) The aquarium that seesaws—fluorescent blue water sloshing—in the middle of the loft of the Zen avatar (Richard Bohringer) is like the film frame itself, off-balance in the most balanced way imaginable. Best of all is when the bicycle-messenger hero (Frédéric Andréi) listens to Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez sing the aria from La Wally, and at that first sublime high note, the camera lifts off and begins to sway. Every time the aria is replayed, the camera moves at the same instant. It has to. This is style as a force of nature.

American Gangster
Directed by Ridley Scott. Universal. R.

Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten
Directed by Julien Temple. IFC Films. Not Rated.

Directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix. Rialto Pictures. R.