DVD Review: Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten

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When he died unexpectedly of a congenital heart defect in December 2002 at age 52, Joe Strummer had ironically found the peace he had sought for many years, both personally and professionally - particularly the latter.

He and his band the Mescaleros was playing to rapturous audiences and had a new album in the pipeline. And as younger bands lined up to praise the seminal punk rock band with hosannas, interest in the Clash was revitalized with the announcement of its induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame . And just one month before, former Clash-mate Mick Jones had played with Strummer at a fireman’s benefit - the first time the pair had shared a stage in close to 20 years.

Could Strummer have been that much closer together to putting back together the band he admits fell apart at his own hands?

Sadly, fans would not get a Clash reunion, and the punk rock icon wouldn’t even live long enough to attend the Hall of Fame ceremony a few months later. Strummer's death left friends, fans and journalists to try and sort out the impact and make sense of a man who was a wildly swinging contradiction. Raised a privileged diplomat’s son, he later chose to live in squalor in dilapidated buildings.

He’d rail against corporate rock, but accepted a huge paycheck to headline the 1983 US Festival. He spoke of brotherhood between the boys, but wouldn’t hesitate to fuck your girlfriend when your back was turned.

Journalist Chris Salewicz produced the definitive Strummer print biography with last year's

Redemption Song

, and now

Absolute Beginners

director Julien Temple does the same on film with

Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten

. After screening at selected film festivals and theaters last year,

The Future

is now available on DVD with over 100 minutes of extra footage.

Temple’s film tells the pretty much linear story of Strummer’s life by mixing archival audio and video of him, news footage, and contemporary interviews with former bandmates, managers, friends, wives, lovers, and famous fans like Johnny Depp and John Cusack.

And keeping it real, not all of what they have to say is complimentary. Temple does not include onscreen IDs, so the viewer is left to piece together who the talking head might be. Curiously, bassist Paul Simonon is the only member of either the original or classic Clash lineup not to participate.

Included is color footage of Strummer as a boy with his family, along with ultra-rare black and white rehearsal and “atmospheric” video of early Clash in which Strummer, Simonon and Jones look more like slightly nervous schoolboys than the punk firebrands they would become. Strummer also left behind hundreds of drawings and doodlings he’d done over the years, and Temple imaginatively “animates” many of them to illustrate a particular chapter or subject in his life. It’s a cool touch.

Ultimately, the documentary is more about the man than his music, with little screen time given to the creative process and most songs and records not even mentioned by name. But who needs another music-journo talking head extolling the virtues of

London Calling

or Strummer’s early championing of reggae and world music?

Late in life, Joe Strummer took to the outdoors and found an enthusiasm for camping at outdoor raves and rock festivals. Inevitably, he would have a campfire going and pull in friends and strangers alike for a bit of communal talk and music making in the so-called “Strummervilles.”

So it’s fitting that Temple’s contemporary interviews all have participants talking around campfires, their faces flickering in the glow of burning embers and sparks flying around. Temple’s cinematic touch the documentary succeeds in adding a warmth to the project as well as memories the subject, a man who was about so much more than anger, politics and gobbing.

- Bob Ruggiero

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