Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten (15)
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Tue May 15 2007Joe Strummer is a hard nut to crack: so many different influences were tugging at the late rocker’s coat-tails that it was never easy to define where he was coming from. Strummer – real name John Mellor – was the boarding-school boy who grew up abroad, did the hippy art-school thing, embraced Ladbroke Grove’s ’70s squat scene, cut his hair, changed his name from John to Woody to Joe, formed and disbanded The 101ers and The Clash, appeared in a bunch of hip movies and then, in the ’90s, became a standard-bearer for world music and a stalwart of the Glastonbury festival. Identity was a big issue for him: in his younger days, he was so nervous of his past and fearful that someone might call him a fraud and not a pure, dyed-in-the-wool punk that he ignored anyone who didn’t call him plain old ‘Joe’. Of course, his mutating persona only makes him all the more interesting for any biographer.
Julien Temple, director of rock films from ‘The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle’ to ‘Glastonbury’ and proven chronicler of the late ’70s punk scene, is obviously well-placed to tell Strummer’s story. Yet Strummer was also a friend and one might worry that Temple could indulge in hagiography and overlook the contradictions in his life. Thankfully, he has turned this proximity to his advantage and crafted a celebration of a friend’s life with style and verve. He turns these contradictions into a theme: that Strummer was a more complicated creature than the punk star of most reports who represented several, interlinked breeds of ‘Englishness’ across his varied life. Of course, this is all couched in the veneration of memorial: Strummer died of a heart attack in December 2002, aged 50. It’s pointless to expect dirt-digging or independent critical analysis from Temple: this is a portrait made by a friend for the fans. It wears its heart and honesty on its sleeve.
Temple’s documentary is a family affair that’s packed with the thoughts and recollections of those closest to the ex-Clash man: his relatives and friends, from Mick Jones to Jim Jarmusch, and a number of unrecognisable faces all help to piece together Strummer’s story. The intimacy of their recollections is repeated in their framing: Temple sits many of his interviewees in front of campfires around the world – London, New York, LA – to stress one of Strummer’s late passions: roaring fires encircled by friends and strangers. It’s a strong device that lends a unity of purpose to the film’s voices. These interviews are cut with the sound of Strummer’s voice, taken largely from the BBC World Service programmes that he hosted in the late ’90s, so that he effectively narrates his own life. The archive footage is dynamic, whether relating directly to Strummer, such as his early gigs and the on-stage reunion with Mick Jones in 2002, or more esoterically illustrating his biography, such as with clips from ‘If…’ and ‘Animal Farm’.
Temple’s last film, ‘Glastonbury’ was notable for chopping up the festival’s chronology and refusing to identify its many interviewees. Straight chronology is restored here but once again if you don’t recognise who’s talking, Temple doesn’t help with anything as conventional as titles. It’s an approach that will infuriate some; yet it also stresses the intimacy of the project and, to be frank, if you can’t identify Mick Jones, you’re unlikely to be watching the film in the first place.
Author: Dave Calhoun