Film explores the life and times of The Clash’s Joe Strummer

By  Gillian G. Gaar

It was while attending film school in London in the mid-’70s that Julien Temple first saw the Clash.

Already shooting footage of the Sex Pistols, he asked if he could film the Clash as well, to which they agreed.

“Mick [Jones, the band’s guitarist] lived in my flat for a bit, so I was quite close to them while I was filming,” Temple says. “I had a good relationship with Joe [Strummer, the lead singer and another of the group’s guitarists], with all of them I think, even though I was more middle class — other than Joe.”

There was an interesting dynamic to the Temple-Strummer relationship.

“I had a little bit of a thing with Joe, because it takes one to know one,” says Temple. “He was trying really hard to be a reinvented street punk and to have some idiot like me hanging around… ” Temple’s voice trails off into a chuckle before adding, “Class was a huge mental thing at that stage. Particularly in the punk movement, which was supposed to be very pure and rising up from the streets. But, you know, it takes all types to make a revolution.”

Temple shot around nine hours of footage of the Clash at the time, including some early music videos.

“Really hilariously primitive,” he says. “Like for ‘London’s Burning’ we used postcards of London Bridge and Buckingham Palace… quite good, actually!”

But ultimately, Temple had to choose sides between the two leading punk acts of the day, and his first allegiance was always to the Sex Pistols. He would go on to direct two documentaries about the Pistols (“The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle” and “The Filth And The Fury”), and later directed the films “Absolute Beginners” and “Earth Girls Are Easy,” as well as videos for the Rolling Stones, David Bowie and Neil Young, among others. And now, he’s finally returned to the Clash with his latest documentary, “Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten.”

The film’s roots go back to 1997, when Temple learned that Strummer was now his neighbor in Somerset, England.

“We spent a lot of time together,” he says. “I got pretty close to him and understood a lot of things I hadn’t understood about him before. There was a lot of depth to the man that I hadn’t seen when he was — in a sense — covering it up. He’d play music, and it was a fantastic education to hear some of the stuff that he was into. And discussing ideas and literature; I hadn’t understood the deep connection he had to different writers. I was watching this man emerging from what had obviously been a very difficult period that I wasn’t a part of in the late ’80s and early ’90s.”

Then, just as suddenly, it was all over, when Strummer unexpectedly died in 2002 due to an undiagnosed congenital heart condition. He was 50 years old.

“It seemed like he would go on forever,” says Temple. “Joe was always such a life force; you didn’t really comprehend when he died that it was possible, really. I think a lot of people were pretty devastated by it. And a lot of people, certainly in England, were connected though Joe; they knew each other through Joe, and so, when the center of the wheel went, the spokes were all collapsed a bit.”

The idea of doing a film about Strummer came to Temple when he was working on “Glastonbury,” a documentary about the English music festival.

“I had a sequence with Joe where he attacks the cameras on stage,” he explains. “And I was thinking, he was such a great guy… you know, I could make a film about Joe! And then maybe we could have some sense of closure in making something good about Joe; we could pass on what he was about. So, it came from that kind of healing sense, in a way.”

“The Future Is Unwritten” covers Strummer’s entire life, beginning with his childhood as the son of a diplomat, who attended private school in England. It was a background he strove to hide when he reinvented himself a hippie squatter, and later a punk.

In his post-Clash years, Strummer was involved in a variety of projects, continuing to play music and also appearing in films. In 1998, the radio program “Joe Strummer’s London Calling” was launched on the BBC World Service. The documentary “Let’s Rock Again!” covered the years with his band the Mescaleros.

Strummer himself narrates “The Future Is Unwritten,” with Temple drawing on 100 different sources for interview material.

“That was quite difficult,” he says. “Because the best sources were always on audio cassette — in a bar in Madrid, for example, really opening up. The worst ones are when you see him in the spotlight in the studio with a big camera where he says what he’s supposed to say. When he’s with a journalist in a bar, it’s great, because it’s really intimate and spontaneous and true, but you’ve got all the background noise and laughter and stuff. We were scared that we couldn’t use a lot of it, but these guys did an incredible job cleaning it up.”

Temple himself did an incredible job in bringing together a wealth of footage from innumerable sources, not only the expected live footage but also film of Strummer as a child, photographs from every stage of his life, animations of his drawings, his poetry and other artifacts.

“It was an act of will, really!” Temple says of the editing process. “I had a mental breakdown during it; I really got very depressed, which I did on ‘Glastonbury’ as well. It’s me having mad ideas and the editor saying, ‘Hey, maybe you shouldn’t do that.’ There’s all sorts of madness that isn’t in the film that was in the longer cut. There is the theory that you have to drown in it, almost; you have get to the point where you’ve been killed by it to actually explore the possibilities of it. It’s like a jungle of film, or seaweed, more like.”

For the interview sequences, Temple places the subjects in one of Strummer’s favorite locations — sitting around a campfire. Strummer began hosting campfires after his Glastonbury Festival appearances, and in the film, they’re used as a thematic device expressing the camaraderie felt between Strummer and his friends.

“I was trying to dig the dirt a bit,” Temple admits. “I’d always ask people, ‘What was bad about this guy; tell me some dirt,’ and they didn’t have much.”

Perhaps in a further illustration of the equality attained in such a casual setting, the interviewees are not identified, which can be frustrating if the interviewee isn’t well known; some of the more recognizable faces include Bono, Flea and Johnny Depp.

Ultimately, Temple regards his work as “a film about friendship. I think it’s good to think about what friends are to you. I think it’s also good to understand 50 years of British history through a counterculture light, rather than an establishment view, which is what you normally get.

“But most of all, I think it’s about Joe, and the lessons you can learn from the way he looked at life, the code of living that he had, his relationship with celebrity, and his relationship with who he was himself,” Temple continues. “I think all those are very interesting things about Joe. Which is why I called the film ‘The Future Is Unwritten,’ which is a Joe scribble, because it’s a punk rock thing. If people want to have a future, they should be a part of it; they should stand up and impact on it and say what they think and question what’s going down. I’d like the film to reach people that don’t really know anything about the Clash and learn something that they can use in their lives.”

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