Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten

(Julien Temple, UK/Ireland, 2007)


There is a movement in cinema known as reflexive documentary (the too-often used “self-reflexive”, by the way, is a painful tautology: when you look into a mirror, of course it reflects yourself!).  Errol Morris and Michael Moore are only two of the filmmakers who have popularised it. Picking up on the prevalent feeling among viewers that the old “truth claims” of non-fiction are highly dubious – that is, when they are not entirely false – the reflexive doco revels in every kind of artifice: dramatic re-enactments, deliberate editorialising, flagrant use of inappropriate footage used for satirical effect … Australia has given us a stirring example of this genre in Forbidden Lie$ (2009).


British director Julien Temple jumps into the reflexive documentary boots and all with Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten. Devotees of the punk singer-songwriter Strummer may imagine, as they watch the first hour or so of this film, that they are witnessing a gigantic mash-up of footage and sound grabs from every previous documentary (both cinema and television) on Strummer’s best-known band, The Clash.


All the classic moments are here: the lowly, working class beginnings of Strummer and his mates, the initial public scandal of the punk movement, the London Calling album, the trip to the United States in order to (as Strummer asserts) grab and devour whatever the wide world had to offer them … And also the almost cliché rise-and-fall of a band, from early solidarity to all-out hostility, from political idealism to the lures of fame and drugs, from minimalist musical purity to over-produced bombast.


We hear a lot of talk – much of it inspired and inspiring – from Strummer’s motor-mouth, but it would be fair to say that he never reveals much of himself. This is the public Strummer, forever on a soapbox, even in his quieter moments as radio host for a World Music program. It is up to his many friends, fans and collaborators to fill in that picture; Temple has gathered everyone from ex-girlfriends to Johnny Depp.


At first, the fact that Temple places most of these talking-heads around a campfire at night seems like a risible, unnecessary affectation. It is only when we reach Strummer’s lesser-known, post-Clash years that we grasp the significance of such fireside gatherings in his life: it was his personal way, in the “rave” years, of bringing together the legacies of punk and hippie into one unbroken line of cultural dissent.


Temple is no stranger to the games of the reflexive documentary; after all, with The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle (1980) and The Filth and the Fury (2000), he styled himself as the official chronicler of the punk movement, mirroring in his filmic techniques the iconoclasm and cheek of the music. For all its flash and dazzle, this tribute to Strummer is a little too mellow by the end, not quite the politically radical call-to-arms that its subject might have wanted.


But, for anyone who loves the music and what it stands for, it is a very moving spectacle. And when the film’s title finally comes out of Strummer’s mouth, its meaning is rousing and indelible.

© Adrian Martin September 2007

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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