By the year 2015, any band that made the cover of NME in the Seventies will have been the subject of either a feature-length documentary (with commentary by Bono) or frontman biopic. As one to whom pop music and film both have both meant a great deal, I can’t understand how this arrangement benefits either medium, but it’s obvious there’s money to be made, and so the process goes on. And if you’ve already forked out for your ticket to “Control” and you’re still waiting on the Captain Sensible musical, you may as well take in a boogaloo eulogy to the Clash‘s dearly-departed Joe Strummer in the new doc “Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten” by Julien Temple.
There are new reasons to dislike the Clash every day. Their storied eclecticism has recently lent them to citation by such imminently annoying figures as the New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones, in his expose of the “whiteness” of indie rock (sample quote, re: Eminem: “He had to be better than the local black competition simply in order to be accepted–a fascinating inversion of the racism that many blacks have encountered in the workplace”), and the hologram created by refracted blog hype known as M.I.A., who samples ‘Straight to Hell’ on a recent single.
Their image is pieced together from a dozen ridiculous, mismatched dress-up mau-mau fantasies: the ducktailed rockabilly, the kamikaze pilot, the South American freedom fighter (as imagined by Sergio Leone). But writing the Clash off is only easy as long as you don’t listen to them–the band, at best, are undeniable, a hotwire to the part of the brain that stores away the most indulgent adolescent fantasies of righteous Boy’s Own Insurrection. Strummer’s quick-hide-the-contraband delivery and cinematic lyrics, invested with a swashbuckling conception of social justice, propel wonderful, dumb daydreams of shouldering a carbine for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Literally no one alive can listen to “The Magnificent Seven” while unwatched and not do a little two-step.
“The Future Is Unwritten” is no radical departure in content from most print-the-legend rock docs: that is, it burnishes down complex social frustrations, individual crises, and years of bad beer and crap gigging, to create one smooth, aerodynamic entertainment. What merit it has comes mainly through hooking onto the momentum of the Clash’s music–the editing decoupages archived rehearsal video over excerpts from Zero de conduit, Orwell adaptations, and streetfighting footage, making for a crackling melange of generalized “rebellion” that fits the band’s own fist-in-the-air bosh.
After the breakup, Strummer is seen to float into career purgatory–the grown man who comes across in actual latter day interview footage is somehow more vague than the aching-for-fame boy we see through only photographs, anecdotes, and sketches (admirably, the film doesn’t ignore what a bastard that kid could be in pursuing those ends). But as the Clash are congealing and the songbook’s coming together, the movie gets up a pleasurable bounce; it never slows down for names or dates, and the band sounds terrific coming from a good theater system.
[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and also writes for The Village Voice and Stop Smling.]