By Paul Sillett
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Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten

This article is over 15 years, 3 months old
Director Julien Temple
Issue 314

Bang! The high voltage energy of Joe Strummer seizes you from the opening frames, as we witness our man rehearsing in never before seen 1976 footage.

In this beautifully evocative labour of love, Joe’s friends, family and musical compadres gather round sturdy campfires – Strummer’s favourite environment – to paint a warts-and-all portrait of a driven, complex diamond.

Temple, a good friend of Joe in his later years, has produced his best work yet. Steeped in the radical politics of May 1968, the incipient use of imagery from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four highlights Joe’s lifelong rage at all forms of oppression. Explosive footage of cops getting one hell of a beating at the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival, and later shots of Criminal Justice Bill demos show where Temple’s heart lies.

Contrary to mythology, Joe’s diplomat dad played a part in instilling rebellion into his psyche. Who’d have thought it? Home movie footage shows Joe and family at play and we glimpse Joe’s younger brother, whose shocking suicide jolted him into realising that life is precious and time is short.

Friends who reminisce about Joe’s travels through art school to London tell of how his excitement for the Sex Pistols led him to abruptly cut adrift some old pals. Prime among them was his band, The 101ers.

Manager Bernie Rhodes gave Joe 24 hours to gang up with two young herberts, destiny unknown. Sensing that The Sex Pistols were blasting a way through the old farts, he went with Mick Jones and Paul Simonon. The 101ers were over. The Clash were born.

For Joe, 1976 really was Year Zero and “Woody” Strummer was born anew. Live footage reminds you of how captivating they were. New shots of The Clash at the seminal 1978 Rock Against Racism carnival will have you pogoing in the aisles, no kidding. The reach that The Clash had is evident when Martin Scorsese talks about the band’s energy driving his inspiration for Raging Bull.

The film also reveals that Joe made some telling mistakes. Big Audio Dynamite’s Don Letts accuses him of cowardice over the removal of Mick Jones from The Clash, for instance.

Laid bare like seldom before are the disparities between Joe’s grassroots approach to all he did and the trappings of fame which drove a wedge into The Clash. Songs became divorced from the context they were written in. “I’m so Bored with the USA” became “I’m in Love with the USA”.

The shadowy, Svengali-like figure of Bernie Rhodes is brilliantly portrayed in the background. Too late did Joe realise that Rhodes’ ego was out of control and the price came to be the band.

Temple doesn’t shy away from showing how the band began to dissolve at their very height. Shots of drummer Topper Headon’s disintegration are distressing – this is no Keith Richards heroin chic.

In 1998 Strummer was truly back with his new band The Mescaleros. The new shows were passionate, riotous and had more new numbers than old Clash classics by the second album.

The only regret is toady Bono’s inclusion in the film. “Sir” Bono learnt little if anything from The Clash. Remember “All the power in the hands of the people rich enough to buy it,” Bono? Clearly not.

Themes such as global warming and aggressive US adventures overseas ran through his lyrics, showing he had his plectrum-mangled fingers on the pulse. As the director says, “Joe was a philosopher; contradiction was his nature.”

At the screening, Temple told me that “Joe’s whole life is about hope.”

The last line goes to the man himself: “People can change anything, so let’s do things from a level of confidence and go for it!”

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