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December 20, 2007

Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten

joe strummer 1.jpg

Julien Temple - 2007
IFC Films 35mm Film

In case you didn't see it, Andrew Grant, also known as Filmbrain, mentions me in an interview at Focus Films new website. I was reading Andrew's postings regularly before I embarked on the creation of my own blog.

Wednesday was my last free day. I will be working every day until the 30th, doing my part to help those who actually celebrate Christmas. A DVD I saw last week is still stuck inside my laptop. I'll be posting about that particular film in a couple of days. I took my DVD player that had been in storage for about a year while I traveled, only to find that it no longer functions properly. I have a new DVD player on its way that I hope will arrive in time for me to whittle down the small pile of films I got from the Denver Public Library. In order to see a film from beginning to end, I had to get out of the house. I ended up going to the Starz Theater in part because I figured I should take advantage of my discount now that I am a member of the Denver Film Society. Also, a film about Joe Strummer seemed more compelling than the half dozen films named on various ten best lists.

What Julien Temple has made is not so much a documentary but more of a collage of footage of Strummer alternating with news footage and clips from other films. Somewhat similarly to what he did with Johnny Rotten in The Filth and the Fury, Temple tries to fit in Strummer within the context of British culture. In the earlier film, Temple makes the lead singer of The Sex Pistols out to be the contemporary version of Shakespeare's Richard III. Temple is less specific regarding Strummer so that the musician may be viewed as a reflection of the zeitgeist of his times.

julien temple.jpg

This interest in British culture is a theme Temple (seen above) has also explored in his theatrical features as well. Absolute Beginners may take its title and plot from Colin MacInnes' novel, but visually suggests that this is Temple's remake of Expresso Bongo, in particular the similar Soho sets. Pandaemonium explored art and celebrity in the lives of Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth. For Temple, there are certain threads in British Culture that are repeated, with certain rock stars as part of that continuum. Is this theme forced? Certainly, with clips from the animated Orwell Animal Farm, the Michael Anderson version of I984 and Lindsey Anderson's If used to hammer a few points. None of this makes The Future is Unwritten any less interesting.

More questionable is having various people in Strummer's life gather round campfires to reminisce. It sort of makes sense in a convoluted way as the musician once named himself Woody after folk singer/activist Woody Guthrie. What is more wrongheaded was the decision to not display the names of many of these people, so that instead of listening to what anyone is actually saying, you're trying to figure out if that's Jim Jarmusch under that hat.

Better is the music itself, including the story behind The Clash's biggest hit. "Rock the Casbah". One could argue that the future WAS written, as indicated by the song Strummer wrote with his previous band, The 101ers, "Keys to Your Heart". Also included are excerpts from the radio show Strummer hosted which showed his musical interests and influences. Considering the state of the airwaves lately, we could really use "Radio Clash".

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at December 20, 2007 12:38 AM


I was really disappointed with the doc when I saw it. Like so many music docs, there just wasn't enough focus on the music and I was distracted by silly things like Depp showing up in full pirate costume trying to talk seriously about Strummer. The film also really glossed over or totally missed the opportunity to talk about really important aspects of Strummer's life and musical career which I couldn't understand. Especially since the film was so long. I expected more from Temple. Maybe I'm too familiar with Strummer so my expectations were really high? Oh well... I'm still glad I watched it. My favorite bits were the early stuff and getting to see him as a kid growing up and playing in his early bands, etc.

P.S. I think you might mean Orwell's Animal Farm instead of Animal House?

Posted by: Kimberly at December 20, 2007 01:07 PM

Thanks for catching that error. I knew something was wrong there.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at December 20, 2007 10:23 PM