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With: Bono, Steve Buscemi, Terry Chimes, John Cooper Clarke, John Cusack, Johnny Depp, Matt Dillon, Dick Evans, Alasdair Gillis, Ian Gillis, Topper Headon, Jim Jarmusch, Mick Jones, Steve Jones, Anthony Kiedis, Don Letts, Bernie Rhodes, Joe Strummer
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Julien Temple
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 123
Date: 01/20/2007

Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten (2007)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Clash Landing

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Julien Temple's new documentary follows the dramatic life story of Joe Strummer, the lead singer, songwriter and guitarist for the Clash. He was born in Turkey, the son of a diplomat, attended art school and became a squatter in London before forming his first rockabilly band. After seeing the Sex Pistols, he decided to go in a different direction with the Clash. After their breakup in the mid-1980s, he floundered in his depression, recording soundtrack albums and disappearing from time to time. In the 1990s, he found a new lease on life with his band the Mescaleros, just before dying in 2002 at age 50.

It's a great story arc, and this alone makes the movie worth seeing, but Temple's filmmaking may frustrate more than it enlightens. As with his 2000 Sex Pistols documentary The Filth and the Fury, he has a fascination for using talking heads, but obscuring or denying any information about them. He doesn't use identifying titles, and doesn't even care if anyone's face is lit. So we have an endless parade of bandmates, girlfriends, musicians, friends, producers, etc. with absolutely no idea who any of them are. A few big-time movie stars and easily identifiable celebrities turn up, such as Bono, Flea, John Cusack, Johnny Depp, Steve Buscemi, Matt Dillon, Martin Scorsese and Jim Jarmusch. And it's not too hard to eventually guess which talking head belongs to Mick Jones, but the rest is a blur. Moreover, Temple insists on filming everyone sitting around campfires -- something Strummer enjoyed during his final years -- and though it's an interesting visual trick (it's better than the standard studio interviews), it also comes across as a little precious.

As for the archive material, Temple has amassed a great collection of Clash performance footage, though it's mostly chopped up; we rarely hear an entire song all the way through. And when it comes to Strummer's youth, Temple uses clips from old TV shows and movies to illustrate life in the boarding school and in the abandoned flats. This technique feels cutesy at best and dishonest at worst. Since we don't get a good look at Strummer's face until much later in the film, viewers may be wondering which of the black-and-white schoolboys in the old film stock is actually him.

Still, Temple includes a terrific sequence in which he intercuts two performances of "White Riot," one from a small club in 1977 and one from a giant stadium in 1983, brilliantly illustrating how big they grew and how far they fell. Certainly the movie could have been worse; it could have been directed as one of those ultra-bland PBS jobs, but Temple's vision takes it too far in the wrong direction. I suspect that Scorsese, who briefly worked with the Clash on The King of Comedy (1983), would be the guy to make the true Strummer film.

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