The Clash meant so much to so many people for so long that it's almost impossible to imagine how the group must have looked from the inside. They were a punk band with passion, politics, and - it seemed like a paradox at first - dignity; consequently, the usual tell-alls and reunions have never been their style.
So director Julien Temple has done it for them - or more specifically, the group's late figurehead and leader - in the bighearted generational bear hug of a movie "Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten." Suffused with clear-eyed affection for its subject and times, this is not your little brother's punk documentary, patiently explaining who did what when. Rather, it's a gathering of the tribe to memorialize one of their own who was also one of our best.
The "gathering" is literal. Late in his life, Strummer was given to organizing impromptu campfires, utopian meetings of the mind to disseminate music and political thought. Temple honors that by filming most of his interviews around midnight campfires in New York, Los Angeles, and London. At first it feels like a filmmaker's annoying affectation (especially since none of the talking heads are ever identified), but the gimmick takes hold, and by the time we get to Bono, hair whipping in the wind and sparks as he speaks of how the Clash completely reoriented his teenage years, we've entered a very special place.
Temple was documenting the punk scene as early as 1976, and he has access to an astounding trove of material both public and personal. The result is that "Joe Strummer" plays like a time-capsule collage, constantly tossing up audiovisual surprises and new ways of looking at things. Because the director interviewed him so often over the years, Strummer's voice is constantly in the mix as well. At times you get the eerie sense of a dead man narrating his own life story.
The throughline is chronological, starting with the youth of a boy born John Graham Mellor - a diplomat's son whose early years hopscotched from one international posting to the next (already he was more cosmopolitan than most of his safety-pinned peers). Playful home movies give way to clips from "Animal Farm" and Lindsay Anderson's "If . . ." to illustrate the brute realities of British public schools.
Along the way, Mellor discovered Woody Guthrie, British ska, world music records (via his father's diplomatic pouch), the Rolling Stones, and US proto-punk acts like the MC5; he joined up with bands called the Vultures and the 101'ers and changed his name, Dylan-style, to reflect his lack of guitar-picking skills. By the time the Clash formed, so had Joe Strummer, and so had his mission: "Authority was something to be avoided and, if possible, attacked."
If the Sex Pistols embodied punk by raging and collapsing in less than three years, the Clash rebuilt the movement to last, balancing their fury with impassioned radical commitment. Songs like "Career Opportunities" and the deathless "I'm So Bored with the U.S.A." were the blunt end of an articulate argument, and Strummer quickly became the scene's John Lennon, pushing and provoking and overreaching and coming through time ("London Calling") and time again ("The Call Up"). "Joe would have more ideas in a rhyming couplet than others would have in their whole [expletive] album," says one interviewee here.
It was too good to last - it always is - and the second hour of "Joe Strummer" threatens to become a standard "Behind the Music" tale of excess and recrimination. Drummer Topper Headon was fired, then co-leader Mick Jones (both are on hand to ruefully dissect Joe's mistakes and their own), and Strummer finally pulled the plug and vanished into his wilderness years. When he heard that American pilots had painted the words "Rock the Casbah" on a Desert Storm bomb, he wept.
This is where a viewer feels the two-hours-plus length of "The Future is Unwritten," and laudatory appearances by Big Hollywood Stars like Johnny Depp (on the "Pirates" set, apparently), John Cusack, and Martin Scorsese only seem like additional padding. (Although who knew that the Clash were a formative influence on "Raging Bull"?) In general, Temple skimps on the standard career-bio details for a more experiential rush, and that can be frustrating. If it's hard facts about the Clash you want, go to Wikipedia. Better yet, just buy the albums.
Eventually Strummer figured out how to live a valid and engaged post-punk life, forming a new band (the wonderful Mescaleros) and happily promoting commitment - to politics, to life, to anything - to a new generation. He had found his groove again and then, in 2002, at the age of 50, he was dead of an undiagnosed heart defect. The loss was immense; as with Lennon, Strummer's was a voice we simply shouldn't be without. The triumph of this fond, uncontainable documentary is that it lets you hear that voice again loud and clear.