In the documentary, “Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten,” released in 2007, we learn that Joe Strummer of The Clash rock group liked having conversations around a camp fire. That explains why almost all of the interviews in this movie, made 4 years after his death, are filmed through crackling, dancing open fires. The interviewees include members of The Clash and various managers, contemporaries and friends of the singer/guitarist.
Strummer, born as John Graham Mellor in Istanbul, Turkey, became an adult in the turbulent and political punk scene of late 1970’s London. He started a band while living as a squatter in a London house, but soon got the attention of an ambitious promoter named Bernie Rhodes, who put him in touch with guitarist Mick Jones and other members of The Clash. The group jelled and became huge in Great Britain before becoming a major attraction in America and elsewhere. Throughout the group’s 10-year existence, the enigmatic Strummer continued to be the soulful heart of the band.
The film reveals Strummer as an artist who continually searched for meaning throughout his career. Although we get the usual stories of squabbling and unease associated with touring rock acts, the film continually emphasizes Strummer as a seeker who never became completely content with his own success. Much of the soundtrack features Strummer spinning records on the radio of other artists whom he gratefully acknowledges for their worthwhile contributions to his music.
The film alludes to Strummer’s drug and alcohol use, but doesn’t elaborate many stories. Clash drummer Topper Headon, who fell into heavy drug use which eventually caused his dismissal from the band, felt like an outsider despite his long association with Strummer. However, he considered Strummer a straight shooter who always gave him an honest answer.
Other interviews, particularly with directors Jim Jarmusch and Martin Scorsese, give us a new appreciation of Strummer as an artist rather than a rock star. Strummer wrote the lyrics for The Clash and also provided a unique rhythm guitar style to their songs. The documentary achieved sufficient musical clearances to give us a full measure of Strummer’s style and influences during his career. I remember seeing The Clash at the Ontario Theater in Washington, DC in the late 1970’s. They were very, very loud and very wild, and they seemed like what The Who must have been like in 1964. It’s odd that Bo Diddley opened for them, but after seeing this documentary, the influence of any musical idol on Strummer’s music is not that farfetched.