Joe Strummer always cut an incongruous figure as a punk. While the rest of the self-styled last gang in town were suitably weaselly and malnourished (Jones and Topper) or remote (Simonon), Strummer, well-built, full of face and with a mockney accent that belied his boarding school past, seemed too old, too worldly-wise for such a nihilistic movement. Not for him the anguished howl of alienation and misanthropy that Johnny Rotten embodied so well. Nor did his band stick to the DIY, three-chord aesthetic propounded by Sniffin’ Glue that seemed such an important tenet of punk, preferring instead to venture into reggae and ska. No, Strummer’s vision of punk was different, educational and multi-cultural, and at its worst had a proselytizing tendency uncomfortably close to that of Bono, and a po-facedness that’s mirrored in the legions of bands they spawned, from the Manics to the Libertines.
Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten is Julien Temple’s beautifully assembled love letter to his dead friend. Born John Graham Mellor in Ankara, Turkey to a foreign-service diplomat father, Strummer lived in various countries before being deposited in an English boarding school with his older brother David. Temple brilliantly evokes the cool austerity of the 50s and the vibrancy of the 60s with a collage of home movies and vintage footage, ending in the tragedy of David’s flirtation with fascism, his descent into depression and his suicide in 1970. We’re left to imagine the impression his brother’s death must have left on the young John Mellor, now calling himself Woody after his hero Woody Guthrie, as we follow him first to art school and then, following an incident with an artwork composed entirely of used tampons, to Newport, South Wales where, sporting decidedly non-punk flowing locks, he forms his first band.
Back in London in 1974 Strummer becomes involved in the squat scene of the time and Temple demonstrates how the political ideas of community and social justice, essentially hippy ideals from the sixties, that would come to define him were developed. After forming the 101’ers, Strummer is picked out by Svengali Bernie Rhodes to join a new band called The Clash and the film picks up pace, with grainy footage of amphetamine-fuelled gigs and the smell of ambition barely disguised as punk ethos, Strummer throwing everything into his new role. Topper Headon pops up to recount how he joined the band, complaining that he left his wife in the morning with long hair and flares and returned in the evening with a punk cut and zips. As a lesson in how punk changed everything overnight it’s perfect. The Clash bandwagon rolls ever faster, a vehicle for Strummer’s struggle for justice, decency and righteousness. Whether it’s protecting the kids from the bouncers, support slots for Grandmaster Flash (he’s booed off), or triple albums called ‘Sandinista’, Strummer walks it like he talks it.
Inevitably it can’t last. Drugs and drink and constant touring conspire to turn The Clash into a parody of the rock bands that, just three years earlier, they’d set out to destroy. Topper writes Rock The Casbah and is shortly afterwards dismissed for his addiction to heroin. Mick Jones writes ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go?’ (shown here live with Mick singing ‘It’s always Joe, Joe, Joe’, should you have ever wondered where Doherty and Barat got the idea for ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’ from) and shortly afterwards receives his own Clash communiqué from Strummer. ‘Are you discouraged by the rock’n’roll business?’, an interviewer asks Mick Jones. ‘It’s no worse than any other prostitution business’, he replies.
After The Clash fall apart Strummer is portrayed as a walking ghost, seeking consolation in the bottle. In one of the film’s funniest anecdotes (and there are a few) Strummer says: ‘I knew I had to cut down on the drinking. Just then the phone rang. It was The Pogues. They wanted to know if I could go on tour with them.’ Slowly though we see him pick up the pieces and eventually form The Mescaleros. We sense a man finding his purpose again, or at least determining what is important. The circle is completed when Mick Jones joins Strummer on stage for a benefit for London’s firemen. Ten days later he dies peacefully on his couch at home, reading The Observer.
Temple tells the story with no little skill, compensating for a lack of footage in the early and later years by mixing in sound snippets from Strummer’s BBC World Service radio show and animations of Strummer’s own cartoons. Perhaps his best trick though is a recreation of one of the Strummerville campfires that had become Strummer’s main focus in the last few years of his life, and which live on as a charitable foundation run by his family and by Temple himself. Gathered around the flames somewhere high above London, drinks in hand, Strummer’s family, friends and fellow artists talk openly and with affection about the man they knew, providing the film with an emotional heart and Temple with a wealth of material. It’s this warmth, from the director down, that is the film’s real strength, and yet paradoxically you catch yourself wondering how another director might tell the story. Occasionally we catch glimpses of a Joe that doesn’t quite tally with the other eulogies – the naked ambition on forming The Clash that led him to snub his former friends, an emotional Topper Headon recounting how Strummer had slept with his girlfriend on tour – and you wonder what else there might be. Temple puts it out there, but there’s a sense that the picture being painted is more of a memorial than a warts-and-all portrait.
Whether or not this is true, you come away from the cinema inspired by Joe Strummer the man. A generous, passionate, larger-than-life character who lived his life in the only way he knew how, fighting for people, for multi-culturalism, for rock’n’roll and for the politics of the left. A man who cried when he read that the American army had written ‘Rock The Casbah’ on a warhead destined for Iraq. If he never quite cut it as a punk, well, maybe he was more than that. After all, as John Cooper-Clarke says, ‘Punks were just hippies with zips’.