The Clash has been described as the Sex Pistols with a high-school education, but that’s unfair — mostly to Joe Strummer. He was bigger than that. As a rock music phenomenon and especially as a manifestation of front man/songwriter Strummer’s world view, the Clash is much more significant than Strummer’s tongue-in-cheek assessment of himself as a “punk rock warlord.”
You don’t have to be a fan of the Clash, or even of the late-‘70s/early ‘80s pop music scene, to be thrilled by what director Julien Temple shows us in his new documentary, “Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten.” In his typical shotgun montage style, Temple paints a hurly-burly portrait of the era — riots in the streets, mosh pits, military run amok, Thatcherism and squats full of punks — all built around the enigmatic Strummer, who died in 2002.
The son of a career diplomat, Strummer (née John Graham Mellor in Ankara, Turkey) spent his youth in Egypt, Mexico, Germany and various African countries before going to English public school (“I was a mouthy little git”) and the inevitable art college in London. His exposure to the world, particularly the Third World, had an obvious effect on his career, as did his early taste in music: Elvis, Stones, Woody Guthrie, Bukka White, U Roy. So did the middle-class Strummer’s identification with working people in class-conscious England. It was a short step from the squats to “getting some words going” as singer and guitarist with band mates Paul Simonon, Nick “Topper” Headon, and Mick Jones in the Clash, their answer to the Sex Pistols. “That’s what was so good about punk,” explains an onlooker. “If you were ugly, you were in.”
The Clash’s music wasn’t especially revolutionary, but Strummer’s writing was. Songs like “London’s Burning,” “I’m So Bored with the USA,” “Police and Thieves,” and a cover of the Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought the Law,” Strummer & Co. brought a political edge to punk. The band purposely connected with black people, anti-Nazis, and popular liberation struggles in general (“the people who were living next door”). “Rock the Casbah” became a huge hit in America — and later was adopted as a battle song by U.S. troops in the first Gulf War, much to Strummer’s chagrin.
Director Temple, who made the two definitive Sex Pistols films, “The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle” and “The Filth and the Fury,” packs his ode to the Clash with such admiring talking heads as Martin Scorsese, Bono, Joe Ely, Matt Dillon, Anthony Kiedis, and Jim Jarmusch (Strummer appeared in Jarmusch’s “Mystery Train” and other movies). But the singer's true constituency was folks sitting around a campfire, a device Temple uses to nice effect in the film. Joe Strummer was the classic bohemian.
Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten
Three and a half stars
Starring Joe Strummer, Nick Headon, Mick Jones, Bono
Directed by Julien Temple
Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes