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The Future Is Unwritten 

Directed by Julien Temple. Parallel Films/Sony Legacy.

Joe Strummer was a son of a British diplomat, boarding school bully, bohemian, busker, scoundrel, field general, passionate soul, survivor, obsessive lyricist, cheerleader, wandering beatnik, father and punk warlord. Director Julien Temple excellently weaves the complex and often contradictory lines about the former frontman and mouthpiece for the seminal UK punk band The Clash for his documentary, The Future Is Unwritten, recently released on DVD.

Temple uses a deep archive of film footage (much credit to Don Letts), animation, present-day interviews (set around a campfire), radio broadcasts and an extensive series of interviews with people close to the band, as well as Clash band members, namely drummer Topper Headon and guitarist/songwriter Mick Jones. Strummer died of an undiagnosed congenital heart defect in December 2002. He was 50 years old. Temple, who also directed The Filth and The Fury, the documentary on the Sex Pistols, steers clear in presenting Strummer as a one-dimensional punk rock icon. He is presented as a forceful musician, songwriter and bandleader whose meteoric rise with the Clash, a band who released five records in five years, from 1977 until 1982. London Calling, released in 1979 as a double record set, was hailed by many, critics and fans alike, as one of the great rock albums of the 20th century, and Sandinista!, released only one year later, was a three-record set (which prudent editing would have better served this disc). Temple prefaces this stardom with Strummer’s bohemian, On the Road-like beginnings, along with his forming of first band, The 101’ers. And, as his fame with the Clash rose, we learn of his equally rising discomfort of the hard-fought success he and the band received.

And then, there’s “the Wilderness Years,” to coin a phrase from Strummer himself. We see his struggle with his post-Clash identity as he acted in films, composed film soundtracks and produced the Pogues’ album, Hell’s Ditch; Strummer had filled in for the “sick” lead singer, Shane McGowen, for a Pogue tour in 1992. With candid interviews with ex-wives/girlfriends -- including Palmolive (Paloma Romera), drummer for the Slits and the Raincoats -- and intimate friends, such as Pearl E. Gates (formerly of the SF band Pearl Harbor and the Explosions), longtime wife of bassist Paul Simonon, director Jim Jarmusch (Strummer was featured in his film, Mystery Train), Don Letts and Sex Pistol guitarist Steve Jones, we get a portrait of a complicated artist and human being.

Fortunately, Strummer was able to achieve his musical “comeback” with the Mescaleros. The film also shows how he was able to attain retribution with his old mates, mostly through campfire hootenannies he held during the annual Glastonbury Festival in the UK. Strummer had come full circle.

Temple provides a good flow to the film, which is edited with precision that provides an unsentimental look at a true musical artist, especially of his time. Strummer, a son of a leftist British diplomat who took his family to live in different countries -- India and Mexico, to name a few -- had influenced Strummer’s political leanings into his music and lyrics, with a poet’s eye and turn-of-phrase. This is probably what marks his distinction above most of his contemporaries (with Johnny Lydon as an exception). The Future is Unwritten is as near a complete portrait of Joe Strummer as one could possibly capture. It serves as a poignant tribute to an important musical artist.

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Mark Shikuma

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