Things I Learned Watching Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten
Burning with boredom now
Last night, Ryan Dombal invited me to a press screening of The Future is Unwritten, the new documentary about Joe Strummer from The Filth and the Fury/Earth Girls are Easy director Julien Temple. I'd never seen Temple's Sex Pistols doc, so I was going into this one pretty much blind. Temple, it turns out, has basically no idea how to put one of these things together, despite decades of experience making movies. If you watch The Future is Unwritten a couple of days after finally getting around to seeing Martin Scoresese's insanely great Dylan doc No Direction Home, which I did, Temple's movie is just glaringly inferior. Scorsese pulled a whole lot of high drama out of Dylan's life by focusing on a really specific period (1960 to 1966), by getting really revealing interviews from Dylan and the people around him, and by showing footage that actually made Dylan's appeal perfectly clear, exposing his legend without actually demystifying it. The Future is Unwritten wants to be a similar piece of mythmaking, but Temple fucks it up by crawling up his own ass. Rather than showing us why, exactly, anyone cares about Strummer, he just includes a whole bunch of testimonials from people telling us over and over that cared about Strummer, as if other people's passion would be enough. He also has a hell of a time constructing the guy's life into any sort of cogent arc, and he constantly distracts by bombarding us with film-school tricks that he should've gotten out of his system by the time he wrapped The Great Rock 'n Roll Swindle. Strummer's life was totally fascinating, and the music and old footage in the movie is great enough that it rarely becomes completely unwatchable, but I really wish someone had done a better job with this guy's story. Here are some things I learned watching the movie:
• Temple really needs to lay off the montage shit. The early parts of the movie are particularly egregious, since there's barely any footage of baby Strummer and I guess Strummer died before he got to tape a proper sit-down with Temple. (There's a lot of audio of Strummer interviews but no recent video.) Anyway, so apparently Temple felt like he had to compensate for his lack of visuals by hitting us with the most gallingly obvious stock-footage he could find. Strummer, for instance, talks about he spent some time in Turkey as a kid, so we get footage of belly-dancers and camels and shit to illustrate the point. Temple also has the unbelievably annoying habit of turning old Strummer cartoon-drawings into horribly animated cartoons, which happens a whole bunch in the early stages of this movie.
• Speaking of gimmicks: Temple interviews a whole bunch of people who knew Strummer, and he also drops in a few gratuitous celebrities like Bono and Johnny Depp and shit, none of whom have anything particularly revealing to add. But for some reason, he decided to leave out graphics identifying all these interviewees, which gets awfully confusing. He also taped all these people sitting around campfires together, which doesn't exactly help him get great quotes from them.
• In his rock-doc ubiquity, Bono has basically become the mainstream equivalent of Thurston Moore, always willing to intone some puffed-up bullshit about how so-and-so saved his life. When he showed up on the screen last night, I just started laughing; I'm not even sure why. Thank God Bono never showed up in No Direction Home.
• One of those nameless talking heads says that Strummer briefly considered changing his name to Johnny Caramello before settling on his stage name, which would've been awesome. We also get to hear a bit of Strummer's pre-Clash band the 101ers, who sound sort of like ramshackle rockabilly. I wish we could've heard more, but this isn't really a movie about music.
• Strummer actually comes off really badly in parts of the movie. When he decided to become a punk, he started treating all his hippie friends like shit. And he eventually become a sort of dictatorial figure in the Clash, kicking Topper Headon and later Mick Jones out of the band. I wonder why none of the interviewees ever came straight out and called him a dick; it might've made things more interesting.
• There's a fascinating strain running through the movie about how punk rock became a haven for opportunists in late-70s England. Strummer, for instance, broke up the 101ers when he saw how successful the Sex Pistols had become and decided he wanted a piece of that pie himself. And Topper Headon talks about how he didn't even like punk, how he joined the Clash just so he could make it, cutting his hair and changing his wardrobe. We've been trained to think of the first-generation punks as these fearless mavericks; I love the idea that some of the music's most important figures were total bandwagon-jumpers instead.
• Temple's not particularly interested in the chronology of something like the Clash when he could be focusing on Strummer's cult of personality instead. So Strummer forms the Clash and all of a sudden they're famous and inspiring baby Bono. Somewhere in there, they signed a record contract and released a classic debut album, but we never hear anything about that. Also, we learn that the Clash were a political band, but we never learn what those politics were, at least not beyond vague stuff about how they were anti-establishment and how they didn't like racism. A lot more could've been done with that.
• The movie improves markedly when the band becomes famous, if only because that means the footage of them suddenly becomes decent. And wow, they really looked like some badasses.
• The celebrity testimonials are fucking hilarious. John Cusack says that the Clash taught him what it meant to be free. Depp shows up in full Jack Swagger drag, complete with goatee-braids. Flea gesticulates wildly. And this movie's total inferiority to No Direction Home becomes all the more obvious when Scorsese shows up to enthuse about the Clash. There's a great story in Peter Biskind's Easy Riders Raging Bulls about how Robert De Niro would amp himself up to do his scenes in Raging Bull by pacing back and forth and listening to the Clash. It would've been awesome if Temple could've sat De Niro down to talk about that, but no.
• The best part of the movie: old interview footage of David Lee Roth. "The thing that the Clash don't understand and that a lot of these bands don't understand is that you can't take life so seriously, honey!" Someone really needs to compile a book of Dave talking about other bands, like that line about how critics liked Elvis Costello because most of them looked like him.
• Second-best moment: Strummer, disillusioned for years after the breakup of the Clash, finally getting excited about music again, rave music in particular. There's a great scene where he gets all excited talking to someone else about techno, reeling off the names of all these techno subgenres, my favorite one of which was intellectno. I really wish intellectno would've caught on as a genre name.
• Worst moment: Courtney Love, mumbling and crying about what a great guy Strummer was. At this point, it's basically cruel to interview Courtney on camera.
• For all the movie's awful quirks, the last twenty minutes or so are legitimately heartwarming: Strummer rediscovering the joy in performing with the Mescaleros, finally finding peace after years of chaos and depression.
• Even with that ending, though, you can find a better Strummer tribute in that scene from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind where Mark Ruffalo gets high and starts spazzing about what a great band the Clash were. I can't believe how badly Temple fucked this thing up.