Review by Beth Gilligan
Posted on 30 January 2007
Source 35mm print
Features: The 2007 Sundance Film Festival
I wasn’t born, so much as I fell out
Nobody seemed to notice me
We had a hedge back home in the suburbs
Over which I never could see
The Clash, “Lost in the Supermarket”
Those familiar with The Filth and the Fury, director Julien Temple’s 2000 documentary about the Sex Pistols, should have no trouble getting into the rhythm of his latest film, Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten. Using the same rapid-fire editing techniques – not to mention decibel level – as the earlier film, Temple once again strives not only to evoke a music legend, but also the social climate in which he rose to fame. In this case, however, the critique of British life in the mid-to-late 20th century ultimately takes a backseat to an affectionate, all-encompassing portrait of a middle-class boy once known as John Mellor.
Born in Turkey in 1952 to a British diplomat father and nurse mother, Strummer spent his early years moving from place to place with his family until the age of nine, when he and his older brother David were placed in a boarding school in Surrey. Temple illustrates Strummer’s lonely childhood with a series of black & white family photos intercut with archival footage of post-World War II England, along with a few snippets of the 1954 animated version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm thrown in for good measure. The early portions of the film include song and audio clips from Strummer’s BBC radio show, giving the impression of him narrating the early years of his life, while the latter part includes songs from the various bands he belonged to.
The pivotal event of Strummer’s teen years was undoubtedly his brother’s suicide. Though Temple never makes a direct link between the two, the film implies that David Mellor’s obsession with Nazism and white supremacy prior to his death may have influenced The Clash’s defiantly left-wing, anti-Nazi lyrics. The film is peppered with recollections from those who knew Strummer as a boy as well as those who became acquainted with him during his early years in a rockabilly band and his later years as The Clash’s legendary frontman. The picture that emerges is one of a man who was always a savvy manipulator of his own image, but who was also wholly invested in living the lifestyle and remaining true to the politics his lyrics espoused.
Among those interviewed are fellow Clash members Mick Jones, Terry Chimes, and Topper Headon (conspicuously absent is Paul Simonon, who declined to participate) along with his family members and famous friends and admirers such as Bono, Jim Jarmusch, Johnny Depp, and others. So as not to disrupt the intimate feel of these recollections, Temple refrains from using captions to identify the speakers, and interviews all of them in front of a bonfire, which was Strummer’s favorite setting for gatherings with friends later in life. While the setting of the interviews takes some getting used to, by the end of the film it feels – the like whole of the movie itself – remarkably true to the spirit of its subject matter.