When Clash frontman Joe Strummer died in late 2002, another chapter of Punk Rock History closed. The last pages were also turned in an equally interesting, if less flashy, chapter: What Becomes of Old Punks, Anyhow? At the time of his death, Strummer was still in the mix -- leading his new musical-hybrid band The Mescaleros, organizing artists into collaborative "campfires," and spinning groovy platters on a BBC World Service radio show.
Now, Julien Temple, the British filmmaker (The Filth and the Fury) and erstwhile member of the 1970s London punk scene, takes us through the significant chapters in the performer's life. Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten is a lively and reverential bio-pic, if a bit hodge-podge-y. The film reinforces the myths that made The Clash "the only band that mattered" even as it reveals Strummer to be a complex and conflicted man. Yet as much as Strummer was driven and undone by ambition and fame, he held certain truths -- a love of music; the desire to reach people; a healthy distrust of authority; an ability to adapt -- that enabled him to persevere.
Strummer's voice opens the film: In grainy footage we see him in a studio, snarling the vocal for "White Riot" into a trembling mic. Then Temple drops the band's tracks in, and the crashing guitars and angry wail become the soundtrack for home movies of boy Strummer cheerfully bouncing about in the yard, like any other British kid in the 1950s.
Except he wasn't. Strummer was a foreign-service brat, raised in exotic overseas locales. At 9, he was sent to boarding school in England, where he adapted to the authoritative regime with rebellious brio. After school came art college, going hippie, short-lived jobs and half-assed bands.
Out of London's '70s squatting community came Strummer's latest band, The 101ers, so named for the address of the members' squat. Just gaining traction, The 101ers had the fortune and misfortune to have an even newer band, The Sex Pistols, open for them one night. In one of the many autobiographical narrations that the older, wiser Strummer provides for the film, he notes: "They destroyed everything in town that was going on." Temple, an aspiring filmmaker, caught punk's genesis on camera that night. (He also threw his lot in with the Sex Pistols, making his mark documenting their grand implosion in The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, and consequently fell out with Strummer. They renewed their relationship in the 1990s.)
From the ashes sprung a new act: The Clash was infused with the heady zeitgeist of anger, street politics and a commitment to its working-class audience. "Write about what affects you," somebody counseled Strummer, and his lyrics paired with Mick Jones' driving riffs catapulted the band to "matters" status.
Needless to say, the journey of The Clash is a familiar one -- band rises and falls; everybody leaves angry -- even to newcomers (who may wish Temple had supplied some dates). But fans will delight in the rare footage, and -- now that we can talk openly -- plenty of details that depict Strummer and Co. in a less than flattering light.
For much of the story, Temple draws on the reminiscences of dozens of former friends, colleagues, family members and interested bystanders. Another thing besides the future that is unwritten here is any identification of interviewees, and I found this aggravating. Is this Strummer's wife, his bookie, a fan, a bandmate, a journalist, a frenemy? Context matters! The still-famous folks are easy, even if their inclusion is mystifying, and others can eventually be inferred. But just recognizing the once-famous, now middle-aged punkers is a chore, 'cause seriously, dude: Steve Jones looks like your dad and John Cooper Clarke may as well have wandered in from the homeless mission. And given Temple's repeated fawning over Strummer's mission to spread knowledge and to broaden horizons, why not let viewers intrigued by the comments of such significant but less recognizable players as filmmaker Don Letts or neo-honkytonker Joe Ely learn who they are?
Among the fascinating revelations: Strummer's overnight re-invention from hippie squatter to rigidly aligned punk. One former compadre characterizes the transformation, in which Strummer cut off his old crew, as "Stalinist." Also under a fresh bright light is Strummer's pursuit of fame and his slavish, even humorless attention to image.
Strummer chased success, but when it came, it only made him miserable. The worst troubles likely started with the 1982 release of Combat Rock, an album that made the band certifiably big and turned the members into egotistical, feuding rock stars. "Life's full of sick jokes," Strummer reflects. "We turned into the people we tried to destroy."
After the band broke up, Strummer dabbled in wandering about, writing soundtracks, acting (Mystery Train), raising a family, subbing in The Pogues and trying to sort out what role an ex-hippie/ex-punk/still-angry man could play in the 1990s. Rebellion was commodified; hoary tribal alliances to "punk" still limited; and popular music had shrunk into corporate-dictated niches. Ultimately, Strummer would regain his footing inspired by the communal "campfire" atmosphere of his old hippie stomping ground, the annual Glastonbury music festival. Re-energized, he would extract the essential germs of both his formative scenes -- hippie and punk: be open; be active; be informed; warn of trouble, but spread the good news, too.
As we all age along with the guitar heroes of our youth, it's something of a parlor game to see what transitions they make and how successfully we can reconcile their later incarnations with our rose-colored memories. We sneer if they stay the same, and berate them if they do something different. When suddenly he wasn't "punk enough," Strummer certainly wandered in the desert of our discontent. But, as documented here, he hung on, explored his roots, continued forward and waited for the rest of us to catch up. It may seem preferable for rock stars to die young, enshrined in perpetual idolatry. But the more seasoned among us know there's a better, if still sad, outcome: to leave this world not worshipped, but respected.
Starts Fri., Dec. 7. Harris