Any music fanatic or self-proclaimed punk knows the phrase “the only band worth knowing” can only refer to one group – the Clash. The Clash, which formed in 1976, revolutionized rock ‘n’ roll, and lead singer Joe Strummer was as much responsible for that revolution as other rock ‘n’ roll greats. He was able to connect with his audience and communicate with an ease that other musicians lacked, and it was the trials and tribulations of his life outside the band that largely shaped this uncanny ability.
“Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten” tells the story of Strummer’s life, including its ups and downs, and the endless number of the people that affected him and his music. Strummer’s story begins with his father, a British diplomat who became an English citizen two years before his son was born. He was stationed in Turkey when John Graham Mellor – who would later become Joe Strummer – was born.
Strummer spent most of his childhood life living in various parts of the world. The film documents Strummer’s childhood using photographs and short home video clips of Joe and his brother David playing like typical siblings. As a child, Strummer grew up in many different parts of the world, including Iran, Egypt, Malawi and Mexico, but eventually found himself in boarding school in England.
Throughout the film, Strummer talks about his own life and how he got started playing music. He first started busking – or playing music for money – on the streets of London and eventually formed a band called the 101’ers out of the squatting residence Strummer was staying in at the time. Whenever Strummer’s food supply began to run low, the 101’ers would play to restock the cupboards.
It was during one of these shows that Strummer’s life changed. After seeing the Sex Pistols open, Strummer was inspired, and a month later, he co-founded the Clash. As he put it, “The day I joined the Clash was back to square one, ground zero.”
Like many musicians, professional success did not guarantee personal serenity, and Strummer’s life was full of the kind of high highs and low lows that make musicians’ biographies so interesting. These issues are largely addressed in “The Future Is Unwritten” via the use of a campfire-like format, where Strummer’s friends and acquaintances sit in a circle and frame the photographs, videos and biographical information with their own personal experiences with the man himself. One of the film’s particularly powerful moments occurs when the group listens to Strummer’s “London Calling” and reacts to a BBC World Service radio show featuring Strummer that was broadcast during his final years of life. Throughout the film, it is this humanizing element that helps “Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten” transcend typical musical biographies, as it becomes more about the connections Strummer made with his fellow human beings than anything else. And, given that Strummer’s particular gift was making those connections on a musical level, it is fascinating to see this quality extrapolated and explained by the people who knew him best.
Of course, Strummer’s friends are not the film’s only talking heads. Strummer’s life and music affected and inspired a myriad of other musicians, actors, writers and personalities. Many of these celebrities appear in the film, including Johnny Depp, John Cusack, Steve Buscemi, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea and U2’s Bono. In the film, Bono discusses the production of the Clash’s Sandinista! and talks about how Joe Strummer’s lyrics were “like an atlas” in reference to their politically charged nature. With this statement, it becomes clear just how much Strummer’s socially conscious songs influenced Bono himself.
Ultimately, this film is a must-see for any Clash fanatic. Although the ending is inevitable, and there are no real surprises in terms of the movie’s narrative arc, the film is captivating because of its ability to construct such a complete, creative and conscious profile of the prolific singer. “Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten” is worth seeing not because of the way in which it lauds a famous musical leader, but because of the way in which it humanizes him. Through it all, nothing is clearer than the film’s focus on a straightforward portrayal of the real Joe Strummer – poet, singer-songwriter, actor, father, husband, icon and human being. As Strummer says near the end of the film, “I don’t have any message except, ‘Don’t forget that you are alive.'”