Keep the home fires burning… Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten (2007)
Joe Strummer loved camp fires, particularly in the last decade of his life – the “I’m at Glastonbury” years. Julian Temple has taken this fondness and used it as a structuring device for this film, in which everybody seeking to make a contribution has to make it from around a camp fire.
The people who gather round these fires are either people who knew Strummer well, or people who want the world to know how much Strummer meant to them. It’s not clear whether the camp fire that Johnny Depp is partially illuminated by has anyone else squatting around it.
Temple himself had (apparently) felt long estranged from Strummer and The Clash as a consequence of his long involvement with the Pistols. The Future is Unwritten (2007) has much in common with Temple’s second (Lydon dominated) Pistols movie, The Filth and the Fury (2007), especially in terms of its juxtaposition of footage, interviews and tangential edited material by way of political-cultural illustration.
(Steve Jones is there by the campfire, contributing appreciative remarks, but John Lydon is absent – perhaps because Lydon is the sort of person who is incapable of pretending that he was closer to Strummer than he actually was.)
Strummer’s early life (understandably little of which is captured on film) is largely depicted in oscillating Orwellian terms using clips from the 1954 animated Animal Farm movie and the 1950s BBC adaptation of 1984 starring Peter Cushing. And it is the beginning and the end of this film that is most fascinating, given that The Clash’s story is self-contained enough to have been told over and over again. The sheer eclectic chaos of the pre-Clash Mellor is extraordinary – born in Ankara with a highland Scottish mother and an eccentric diplomat father, he had nothing resembling a childhood home. No other kind of childhood, arguably, could have given him such a fascination with locality and music which affirms home and locality. The 101ers, the great squatters’ pub band of myth and legend, could only have been satisfyingly fronted by this one great man, and could only have originated in Notting Hill – a locality where nobody really belongs, or at least has belonged for very long. Everyone gets a bit soppy when discussing the 101ers.
Not that this is a work of hagiography. John Graham Mellor Woodie Joe Strummer emerges as a ruthlessly calculating character, someone prepared to drop long time companions and allies like a stone as soon as he became committed to something like the main chance. His next big thing might calcify into a Stalinist orthodoxy very quickly and heretics who couldn’t keep up found themselves cast into the outer darkness of his long term displeasure. This kind of exile was all the more traumatic, given the remarkable charm of the man. This was a man who you could spend all night talking about everything in the world with, and the rest of the week talking to everyone in the world about the talk that you’d had with him. Such is the affection that the memory of these conversations provokes that even someone like Topper Headon recalls the circumstances of his own ejection with a degree of dewy-eyed affection. If you’re going to be abused by anyone – it seems better to have been abused by Strummer than by anyone else. He will abuse you with conviction and eloquence and a sense of commitment to a higher cause.
The final section will bring tears to your eyes, simply because it seems obvious that at the time of Strummer’s pointless and untimely death, he was probably happier than he’d ever been in his life. His band was successful, but not stupidly successful. He had friends and family around him. He was sane. Everybody wants him back.