The Future Is Unwritten, Dir: Julien Temple, Now Playing
I don’t like the truths posited in The Future is Unwritten: they’re all banal, off base or painfully disillusioning. 1. Joe Strummer’s friends have many nice things to say about him. 2. Age mellows people. 3. Quiet defeat often passes for wisdom. The burnouts who sing campfire songs and eulogize Strummer turn him into a contemplative quasi-Bhudda. By narrowing his focus to the most intimate forms of community, they say, he showed enlightenment, rather than fatigue.
The surprise here is not that a rock documentary trades in clichés, it’s that director Temple trades in such uninspired ones. Rather than focusing on Strummer’s divisive and often domineering turn as front man of the Clash, Temple presents Strummer as genial party host. Temple has taken on punk before, and with different emphasis, most notably in The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle, and The Filth and the Fury. He’s made a career (and a number of enemies) re-envisioning the story of punk rock and its antiheroes. Here, he relegates the movement to irrelevancy because few of the relevant parties had anything to say which fit into Temple’s revisionist take on Strummer.
Is there really anything more to be said about the Clash? Control, the recent biopic about Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, treading pretty much the same historical and geographical ground, presents the tight bind between the rise to fame and the urge towards destruction with blistering cruelty. It also manages to be impossibly dull. The self-absorbed artist is no longer an absorbing subject. De-emphasizing how thoroughly Strummer played that role and for how long makes it less shocking that Joe turned into such an easygoing fellow. Strummer was as difficult, embittering and capriciously disloyal a figure as Curtis, but he lived long enough to at least regret it a bit. The cohort interviewed in The Future is Unwritten is made up, for the most part, of people from his pre-Clash days who view Strummer as a prodigal son. But we never learn how much he returned to their fold before his death, and how much posthumously. We also never learn if he consciously chose this crew over his punk friends, or if they were the only people willing to talk to Temple. Only Topper Headon speaks about the Clash with any candor, and he’s disarmingly real. Temple includes him only briefly, giving much more screen time to Mick Jones talking about himself and Big Audio Dynamite.
Strummer’s youth is presented with enough detail that we are sure it happened and that it was hard. Strummer was the son of a diplomat and the brother of a suicide. But apparently, this was less critical to his character than the repressive postwar British culture. Temple asserts this bizarre argument through the ham-fisted interspering of animated Animal Farm footage. The cartoon provides a pretty good junior high school summary of George Orwell’s seminal work: in Animal Farm, the barn becomes a stand-in for authoritarian society, and this repressive culture rankles the thoughtful, liberal-leaning set. The simplistic setup makes Strummer look like a simpleton indeed, posturing in well-worn positions, rather than holding any coherent set of beliefs. Temple possesses the Situationalist sensibility to create an unexpected context for Strummer’s finely-tuned conscience, but instead chooses to lean on this 8th grade metaphor. Mainly, it seems Temple just likes cartoons. The first half of the film features a series of whimsical illustrations based on Strummer’s doodles. They are never explained, and they stop when the Clash gains renown. Did Strummer’s inspiration die or did he recognize where his true talents lay? Temple wants the audience not to know. Refusing to elaborate on the basic questions of biography gives proof to the unusual closeness the filmmaker had to his subject; that hermetic intimacy keeps us out. It also deflects attention from noticeable absence of Strummer’s family, who chose not to be involved in the film.
Instead of giving a sense of the man, Temple gives a sense of how well liked he was, and how much those who weren’t Joe’s personal friends missed out on. We see a lot of people who loved Joe Strummer strut about peacock fashion flaunting their position in his circle. (The circle in this case is oddly literal, with all the interviews occurring around the sort of Burning Man campfire Strummer grew to enjoy.) Bono, John Cusack and Johnny Depp pontificate meaninglessly, defying the average Joe persona people keep attaching to Strummer.
The postmodern idyll seems lovely, but it’s a letdown. How the fuck could Joe Strummer be just another hippie raver? There is a vague assertion that punks and hippies are kin, too long estranged. But that’s just plain wrong. Hippies are blandly metaphysical and punks all too aware of the material realities of life. The narrative wherein Strummer remained on a quest for personal connection throughout his life denies both of these essences. The film seeks to present Strummer as more than just the singer of the Clash, but it achieves this only by diminishing what an accomplishment being the singer of the Clash really was. One of few universally accepted truths about Joe Strummer is that he was unfailingly gracious to those who looked up to him. Perhaps he was more proud of being part of the Clash than The Future is Unwritten lets on. The early footage of Strummer, which is only a glimpse of what is available in films like Rude Boy, shows that he certainly should be.
Strummer’s post-Clash life is worthy of the warm treatment given in the film, however. On his radio show, and in his later music, he focused heavily on non-Western influences. His taste exposes a complex social conscience that denies white privilege at many turns, but here is presented as mere affability. Strummer comes off like a punk rock Stephen King, a vastly famous alcoholic with a baffling need to compliment every mediocre thing that crosses his path.
There are always ambiguities in biography, but it would undermine Temple’s claim on Strummer’s legacy to admit them. By refusing to address any questions regarding Strummer’s politics or his own self-perception, Temple diminish the legacy itself. It’s hard to speak ill of the dead, but it does them more harm to refuse to.
The opinions expressed by Walter Matthau are his own and do not represent the views of the editors of the Brooklyn Rail or Sarahjane Blum.