Punk died, the Silver Jews sang, the first time a kid shouted, "Punk's not dead!" The words are never uttered in Julien Temple's Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, and maybe that's why you come away from this epic doc feeling hopeful about the health of punk's lingering ideals. Piecing together snippets of everything from Raging Bull to an animated Animal Farm, along with archival scraps, performance clips and a mosaic of witness testimony, Temple's engrossing portrait of the Clash's late frontman uses endlessly suggestive montage to show how he kept punk's precepts alive, even after he left the music and eventually the earth itself.
Was there ever any question about Strummer's cred? Yes, children, depressing as it is to say, people have been arguing about what is or isn't or wasn't or shouldn't be punk since Green Day was in Romper Room. The '70s start, and suddenly you're not the only one who wears rip-kneed jeans, loves three-chord bubblegum played by knock-kneed Bowery hoodlums and thinks, "Hey, maybe I could do this, too!" The '70s end, and suddenly the shapeless horde you found by accident is as regimented and exclusionary as any country club.
A musician in a militantly artless movement, a star who was supposed to disdain celebrity, Joe Strummer didn't so much embody punk as transcend it. Sure, the Sex Pistols were the bomb throwers — in The Future Is Unwritten, their arrival onscreen is greeted with an explosion. But in Strummer, punk got an ambitious (and unironic) generalissimo with the stage presence, the songwriting skill and the rhetorical firepower to take the revolt over the barricades. And in the quantum leap from the self-titled Clash album to London Calling, punk got exactly what it wasn't supposed to have: a future.
The Future Is Unwritten doesn't smooth over the contradictions in Strummer's story: It leads with them, intercutting shots of the singer snarling the classic "White Riot" — that electrifying, hoarse barrage of accusatory verbal eighth notes — with glimpses of a fresh-cheeked lad enjoying his well-off boyhood. A career diplomat's son, the young John Mellor got the best education that posh British schools could provide — in class resentment. He retained the lessons well. Like Bob Dylan, he initially modeled himself on Woody Guthrie, the man whose guitar was a machine that killed fascists.
Temple heralds the awakening of Strummer's political conscience with the schoolyard uprising of Lindsay Anderson's If... and the meat-grinder chords of the MC5's "Kick Out the Jams" — a juxtaposition that packs a page's worth of high/low cultural analysis into a few fleeting frames. In his school days, Strummer says on the sound track, he learned "you either formed a gang or were crushed." After attempts to reinvent himself as a busker and a quasi-rockabilly cat, he found his gang — and with it his destiny as the bullhorn for Britain's roiling underclass.
Temple — who directed Johnny Rotten & Co. in The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, then made up for it 20 years later with the superior Pistols doc The Filth and the Fury — has compiled the testimony of adoring fans, from the inevitable (Bono, Jim Jarmusch) to the inexplicable (ahoy, Captain Jack Sparrow!). He's gathered pungent drugs-to-fistfights dish from Clash mainstays Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon; he's found sizzling concert clips that chart the band's bewildered rise to top of the pops, along with their desultory breakup. Factor in the bittersweet triumph that caps Strummer's story — his success with the roots-rocking Mescaleros after years of indirection, and a surprise Clash mini-reunion before his death in 2002 — and the film has all the ingredients for DIY pop hagiography.
But that's not what Temple ends up with. The Future Is Unwritten is less a eulogy than a wake, and one in which the subject is startlingly present. Strummer started revising his epitaph in the mid-'80s, after his success began to feel like a cosmic joke: He wanted no part of singing "Career Opportunities" to a sold-out stadium, or watching as U.S. bombs labeled "Rock the Casbah" rained on the Middle East. He's shown here in later years, mellow and heavier, presiding over a different kind of tribal bonding: a campfire ritual at the Glastonbury fest that served as a meeting ground for kindred spirits, much as punk first mustered its ragtag army of squatters and misfits.
These campfires continued after his death and give The Future Is Unwritten its shape as well as its spirit. From Los Angeles to New York to Ireland, friends, family and fans assemble around the fire pit to remember Joe as the glow fades into dawn. It's Strummer's own voice — a radio-show track filled with warmth and optimism — that threads together the separate locales, along with snatches of favorite songs. Temple's punk-bred refusal to identify (and thus privilege) any of his interview subjects onscreen can be maddening. But in the final shots of these makeshift gatherings silhouetted against the lightening sky, the individuals combine into a joyous, vibrant community larger than any one component. As a definition of punk, that probably would have worked for Joe Strummer.