I have to confess I was eagerly awaiting the release of this bio on The Clash frontman Joe Strummer. Even though ‘London Calling’ is one of my top five ‘Desert Island Discs’, I knew surprisingly little about the life and times of the enigmatic Strummer.
I wasn’t disappointed – in a word, the film is brilliant.
Director Julien Temple has made skilful use of a variety of material, including archival cradle-to-grave footage, photographs, movie excerpts, and reflective interviews with the key players in Strummer’s life, to create a fascinating and compelling film.
The early scenes cover Strummer’s childhood and private school upbringing – quite ironic given the man’s future penchant for rocking the establishment (not to mention The Kasbah) – before moving on to his days as an art school dropout and layabout London squatter. The squat sequences are quite powerful, as is the footage depicting the growing social agitation in London immediately prior to the emergence of the punk movement.
The energy levels pick up with Strummer’s transformation to musician, first with squat band The 101s, and then more famously with punk legends, The Clash. Some of the featured early Clash tunes are excruciating, however as the film progresses, the music improves noticeably. As well as covering many Clash classics, the soundtrack features some of Strummer’s favourite musical influences, along with commentaries on these taken from his popular BBC World Service program, London Calling.
Temple captures perfectly the frenetic energy that accompanied the punk movement, showcasing some amazing crowd scenes in dingy London nightclubs. These are in stark contrast to shots of the band several years later playing packed out stadium shows in America, separated from the crowd by large barriers and acting like the prima donna rock stars they once scorned.
The sudden and inevitable demise of the band follows soon after, with the last portion of the movie tracing Strummer’s subsequent battles with depression, and his mildly successful attempts to reinvent himself, including one incredible foray into the world of techno.
Temple’s portrayal of Strummer is reverential but objective; he is shown to be not only a flawed genius, brilliant lyricist, outspoken social critic and loving father, but also self-serving, ruthless, and not particularly loyal to friends or band members. Still Strummer comes across as a likeable and personable person, particularly in his later life.
The reflective interviews with Strummer’s family and friends, conducted at urban bonfires around the world, were particularly enjoyable and insightful, however it was not always apparent who the speakers were or what part they played in Strummer’s life. Some subtle captions would have been useful in putting their recollections into context.
Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten is a must-see movie for fans of The Clash, and well worth the admission price for non-fans as well.
Rating: 4 stars