"joe strummer: the future is unwritten" came to my attention when i noticed that it was part of the "punk 'n' pie" series at the brooklyn academy of music last month. it was a week long focus on the u.k. punk and post-punk rock scene (and, fittingly, concluded with a screening of that now classic of punk, "sid and nancy"). unfortunately, for me, i couldn't get over to brooklyn see the strummer documentary (nor "sid and nancy," for that matter). but, thanks to the wonders of netflixs, i got did see it on the smaller screen :D
during high school and early college my friends and i were serious fans of the clash. any biography about strummer would, by necessity, be the story of the clash as well. but more than that, i was especially riveted to the pre- and post-clash strummer story. long before his clash days, joe strummer was the son of a british diplomat - and, for better or worse, lived that life. he was born in turkey, lived in egypt, mexico, and germany before he was sent away to boarding school.
from the confines of boarding school, his rebellion began (you either lead or be led he notes). from there it was art school, hippies, and a rockabilly band (where strummer first began writing songs). then, after catching the a sex pistols show - a glimpse at the future - and a fortuitous meeting with a promoter, he came face to face with his future band mates on a sofa in a rundown apartment. the problem was, he was already in a, relatively, successful band! therein we glimpse at the real joe strummer - a/k/a john graham mellor. he unceremoniously (undiplomatically) quit his band and started, a brand new band, brand new sound, and brand new strummer.
the story is related, matter of factly, but with understated drama, by joe strummer's own words in the voice over. the filmmaker, julien temple (no stranger to rock documentaries) had access to huge amounts of archival footage, interviews, photos, recordings (that he himself, temple, had been filming since the 70's! - talk about a fan!). even more impressive, however, was temple's access to stummer's personal notebooks writings, and materials. he weaved into the film strummer's own doodles (which he animated) as transitions. and he used two orwell stories (a bbc film of "1984" and a cartoon version of "animal farm") as cut-ins to punctuate the narration.
one highlight was the clash's dramatic "takeover" of new york city in 1981 - via the 17 night run at bonds in time square. that was the high point of my interest in the clash. not only did i catch one of those very bond shows, but the following year i caught them again at pier 94 as part of the "combat rock" tour. later that tour the clash opened for the who at shea stadium - and one of those two nights was just been released on cd. unfortunately, by that point the clash was just at the end of its rope. it's implosion was just around the corner.
back to the film: the now, seemingly, legendary bond show where they shared the stage with allen ginsberg was merely alluded to with a vintage photo (and one w/a gaunt william burroughts was even snuck in for good measure). but why was that seminal "beat meets punk" moment not played up? not only did ginsberg take the stage - and sing "capital air" - but he subsequently sat in on one of their recording sessions! the documentary does have clips of bono, matt dillon, steve buscemi, johnny depp, and even martin scorsese! bono's memories of seeing the clash in ireland during the 70's are riveting!
still, the post-clash years are fascinating. i knew little of what happened to strummer (except for his sudden death in 2002 of congenital heart failure). the rare glimpse at him and mick jones reuniting on stage for a fireman's benefit just before his death was amazing. plus, joe's work with bbc radio and the new band, the mescaleros was amply covered. he emerged from the wilderness with new found maturity and creativity, only to be cut short before he could write any more of his future.
this was a powerful documentary. for a rock fan, it's a must see. after seeing it, now i want to get hold of "let's rock again," the short documentary of his tour with the mescaleros!
update: i finally got to see "let's rock again" on the sundance channel and it was excellent!