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DVD Review: Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten

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Why do some find the need to make rock star bios? The recent and dreadful Lennon Naked added absolutely nothing to what anyone knows or has thought or felt about the Beatles and Lennon—if anything, it took away from the man, made him quite unlikable. Walk the Line didn’t do much for Johnny Cash, or for me. Val Kilmer did a great Jim Morrison impersonation in a not-great-at-all film. Gary Oldman was a fantastic exception as Sid Vicious in the great Sid and Nancy. What all this is leading up to is that there is a film biography of musician Joe Strummer rumored to be in the works, Joe Public. There’s not much to be known about it yet, except there is the desire to make the film. And I’m not exactly excited about the prospect.

I’m not sure I could stand to watch someone “play” Joe Strummer in a film. I was just finally able to make myself watch Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten. I was a huge Clash fan growing up, and an even huger Joe fan. Some kids growing up love comic books and idolize superheroes. I had a few posters of singers and the New York Yankees on my bedroom wall, but I never really had a teen idol phase like some of my girlfriends. But when I put the first Clash record on my parents’ stereo in suburban southern New Jersey, my world changed. I took London Calling with me to art school and Joe & Mick & Paul & Topper were the soundtrack of my college years.

The Clash were different from any other band or music that I had ever heard. Their lyrics made me think, exposed me to issues and people previously unknown (Sandinista).

But how could we know when I was young
All the changes that were to come?
All the photos in the wallets on the battlefield (“Something About England” Sandinista!)

They created an aural collage—straight-up rock and roll, punk vocals and values, Allen Ginsberg reading (“Ghetto Defendant”), lines from cult movies like Taxi Driver (“Red Angel Dragnet”), pop culture references galore. Plus, you could dance to it. Joe Strummer was my first and maybe only idol. I looked up to him. He was an artist who made me glad that I was an artist.

It’s sometimes hard to meet your idols. It can be very disappointing, which was why I had been avoiding Julien Temple’s film. But I finally sat down and watched it and was impressed. It wasn’t just a rock star rise and fall story, although there are those aspects to Joe’s career (and anyone’s life after a certain age). It wasn’t just about the Clash. It didn’t sanctify or trash Joe, although it didn’t shy away from showing some of his less-than-stellar moments. It was as honest and hyper-kinetic and three-dimensional as the man.

For Clash fans it confirmed, through Joe’s own words and interviews with Mick Jones, that not only did Joe break up the Clash, but he broke Mick’s heart when he fired him from the band in 1983. But it also showed more clearly than any other film about a band, that maybe there really is only one pattern for rock stars—walk over everyone and work your ass off to get to the top, get addicted to drugs on the way, clean up, finally get to the top, find out that success isn’t so great when you get there, freak out at the inevitable slide down (all except possibly the Rolling Stones who never seemed to notice their slide and are as happy as they could be, to be where they are.) As Joe says when he the Clash have made the big time, playing before huge crowds at Shea Stadium, “I couldn’t believe we turned into what we tried to destroy.” Boys together are great until the boys grow up to be men.

Elevator! Going up!
In the gleaming corridors of the 51st floor
The money can be made if you really want some more (“Koka Kola” London Calling)

Joe was brought up all over the world, which definitely was a factor in the world-view politics expressed in his art. He also experienced the typical English boarding school environment, hardly seeing his parents for his formative years. His brother David, a year older, was a lost soul—he joined the National Front, became more and more alienated from his family and eventually committed suicide at the age of 19. Joe went to art school, “The last resort of malingerers and bluffers and people who don’t want to work” (as an art school graduate I adore that quote), and eventually found a group of like-thinking hippies and squatters who also were musicians. He soon chucked art school and dove into music full-time, deciding that he wanted to be a rock star. This led to the 101ers, which had some wonderful rockabilly-influenced songs such as “Keys to your Heart” and “Letsagetabitarockin.”
But Joe always had his eyes on the prize and it was a short hop to the future by dumping his old friends and old life when he met Mick Jones—he “grabbed the future by its face.” The film interviews Joe’s friends from his college years, and although they acknowledge how hurt they were when he walked away without a second glance, they don’t seem to have hard feelings about it. It was very punk rock of him, after all. And considering what everyone is like in their me-oriented 20s, we can probably all come up with some similar examples of callous behavior from our pasts.

Anything I want he gives it, but not for free
It’s hateful
And it’s paid for and I’m so grateful to be nowhere
This year I’ve lost some friends
Some friends? What friends?
I dunno, I ain’t even noticed (“Hateful” London Calling)

When Joe first started playing with Mick he was clearly in awe of him, “Mick can hear chords and the bass, make arrangements in his head.” Mick was the man with the music, Joe brought the words. Joe chopped off his hair and threw himself full force into the punk ethos, but he was always still a bit of the hippie, and held on to his rockabilly style with his ever-present slicked-back locks and modified pompadour (even with the mohawk) that is an heir and homage to Elvis. Joe never completely tossed his hippie “love everybody” beliefs. He may have perfected a punk snarl with hapless interviewers, but when it came to playing music in front of a live audience, Joe wanted to share the experience fully, “We were one with the audience. You should never put yourself above anyone.” He wanted the Clash to be the people’s band. “Without people you are nothing, that’s my spiel.”

This is a public service announcement
With guitar! (“Know Your Rights” Combat Rock)

What really makes the film work for me is that so much of it is narrated by Joe himself, culled together from interviews and his radio program, London Calling, from the ’90s. Joe is always honest and frequently funny. When asked why the son of a diplomat who went to boarding school had a famously dentally-challenged look early in his career, he says offhand, “I never brushed my teeth.”
I’m so glad I conquered my fears of toppling my idol and watched Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten. It brought back some of the spirit, some of the rawness that was life in the ’80s. Or maybe that’s just life when you’re young. Joe never lost his love and interest in life. Post-Clash he played with the Pogues, Mick Jones’s Big Audio Dynamite, and formed Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros. He also wrote music for films and did some acting, working with filmmakers Alex Cox and Jim Jarmusch.

A.M., the F.M., the P.M. too
Churning out that boogaloo (“The Magnificent Seven” Sandinista!)

I was shocked and upset when I heard that he died at the age of 50 of a congenital heart condition in 2002. But I didn’t experience that tragic feeling you get when someone too young has left this world. Joe was too young, definitely, but he also lived a full life, at full tilt, and left a great legacy. He is no James Dean or Buddy Holly or Heath Ledger. As someone says near the end of the film, “He sang every word like he meant it.” He did, and I can still listen to his music today and get meaning from it, get inspired by him. Will some fictional biopic be able to do that? Not very likely. Mick Jones and Paul Simenon are also reported to be producing a film about London Calling. Hmmm. At least Joe Strummer The Future is Unwritten is chock-full of Joe’s voice and words, with some great film and music clips. It’s a worthy glimpse into a punk rock and roll idol’s life.

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