If you can imagine what it would be like to try to document the life of one of your closest friends after their death, and to assemble everything into feature film length, you can probably see how difficult the process might be. This is what director Julien Temple had to do while he directed Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, about the lead singer for one of the world's best known bands, The Clash. Temple's documentary utilizes an enormous amount of archival footage, personal interviews, news interviews, vintage photos, audio recordings and footage that he himself had been filming since 1976. Temple also had access to Strummer's personal notebooks, writings and recordings, so they feature heavily in the doc. He uses Strummer's doodles and writings in animations that serve as transitions between scenes, or to underscore different pieces of the film. Of course, the main element that keeps everything sticking together is Joe Strummer and his music.
The only problem is that Joe Strummer is so closely identified with The Clash, that a movie about him is also a film about The Clash almost by default. That's true of this film as well, and Strummer's time with The Clash represents most of the meat in this film, if we were comparing it to a sandwich. There is far too little about his childhood and growing up, and I found myself wondering more about that period than anything else. Temple told us during the Q&A that he would have liked to include more in the film, like Strummer's relationship with his father, but he had to leave some scenes out in order to keep the running time to two hours.
Still, fans of both Joe Strummer and The Clash will find a lot to like in this film. It covers the forming of The Clash and Strummer's attitude about the band, as well as his time with The Mescaleros. We get to see how The Clash rose to popularity, and eventually became so popular that they weren't punk anymore, which both they and the fans recognized. Their eventual break-up left Strummer drifting through a period of working on music for films and acting in some, which finally helped to rekindle his music and to start a very active solo career.
Temple's friendship with Strummer serves as a bit of a double-edged sword. There is no doubt that his close association with him led to so much media and access being made available to him for the documentary. However, it also seems like the film keeps Strummer at arm's length at times that you'd like to see it get more personal. We don't get to hear from Strummer's children (apparently they didn't want to be involved with the film), and at times it is hard to try to grasp what he was like as a person, and not just a stage persona. According to his bandmates and friends, this was true in real life as well. Some people viewed Joe Strummer as the mask that John Mellor (his real name) used to put on to appear onstage, but others remain content in the belief that Strummer was the same person both on stage and off. The film doesn't offer any real insight into that.
There are personal interviews with some of the surviving members of The Clash, as well as with people like Bono and John Cusack that are very personal, and serve the film well. They don't stand out as "Look! We've stuck a celebrity in here!" Temple uses a campfire setting for most of these interviews, and given the fact that Strummer used to organize large campfire celebrations before he died, it's only fitting. One thing for certain is that the Joe Strummer we see at the campfires is a much more approachable and likeable figure than the Strummer who avoids confrontations and has other people fire band members during the heyday of The Clash.
Despite the fact that it is at times uneven in tone, this documentary does a more than adequate job of filling in the gaps about Joe Strummer that I didn't know about. 'Combat Rock' was one of the first albums I ever owned, and all I knew about Joe Strummer before seeing this film was from their albums, up until his tragic death in 2002. He burned brightly for 50 years, and this film is a nice look back at what Strummer means to music, and to the world. He's both brash and humble in the documentary, and he will be missed.