'Strummer': In the Spirit Of the Clash's Punk God

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 9, 2007

"Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten" may not summon the British rocker from the dead, but it gives us the next best thing -- a cozy fireside encounter with the punk era's greatest poet.

Best known as the cockatoo-haired, chord-slashing frontman of the Clash, Strummer swiftly became spiritual leader for an alternative generation opposed to the increasingly corporate climate in pop music and the social policies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. After the Clash's tempestuous breakup in 1986 and stints as a film composer and occasional movie actor, Strummer seemed to have fallen into semi-oblivion. But when he formed the Mescaleros, a band that offered a rich, eclectic mixture of genres, Strummer found his ultimate maturity, as an artist and person. This new spiritual chapter was cut short in December 2002, however, by his death of a heart attack. He was 50.

Filmmaker Julien Temple, who also made 2000's well-received punk documentary "The Filth and the Fury," covers this biographical territory with beautifully cut moments and images. We are watching an all-too-short life structured into exhilarating trajectory.

There's a young Strummer, all mohawk and sneer, as he takes petulant exception to an interviewer's question about Clash drummer Topper Headon's drug addiction. (It's a moment that eerily echoes the cocky arrogance of Bob Dylan as he takes on a British journalist in the 1967 documentary "Don't Look Back.") There's Strummer in post-Clash exile, in a cameo as a bearded revolutionary in Alex Cox's 1987 "Walker," for which Strummer composed the soundtrack. And there's a heavier, pastier but more peaceful Strummer taking the stage with the Mescaleros for appreciative fans.

But there's more to "Strummer" than "Behind the Music" revisitation. By staging interviews with Strummer's family and other intimates beside bonfires (in locales including London, New York and Los Angeles), Temple re-creates the folksy atmosphere of Strummer's favorite music festival, held in England's Glastonbury, where fans come every year to watch big and emerging acts, camp in tents and sit around roaring fires at night. Amid the crackle and glow of their heartfelt reminiscences, we feel an extraordinary dimension of intimacy. And at the risk of getting all "Kumbaya" about it, those campfires make a powerful metaphor for the global togetherness Strummer increasingly sought to engender with his music.

Some of the celebrities interviewed seem questionable choices. Do we really care how much Strummer meant to Johnny Depp, Bono and John Cusack? But for the most part, we hear from the more insightful inner circle, including his widow, Lucinda; Clash lead guitarist Mick Jones (whom Strummer tossed from the band in 1983); drummer Headon (also forced out because of his addiction); Strummer's musical mentor Tymon Dogg; and friends of Strummer from even earlier days when he was a schoolboy at the City of London Freemen's School.

Strummer isn't present in these contemporary interviews, but thanks to Temple's deftly assembled soundtrack, we hear excerpts of many past interviews, including the charmingly folksy world music show he hosted for the BBC. That speaking voice, with its slightly raspy, sonorous conviction, has the humming resonance of an Elvis Presley. But it's imbued with a more globally aware intelligence. Even in the most casual conversations and asides, Strummer always seemed to be speaking to issues larger than himself.

Die-hard fans of the Clash singer-songwriter -- including this reviewer -- may leave the theater hungering for even more. But then, nutballs like us would be satisfied only with 24-hour access to Strummer's soul and Rolodex access to every intimate friend he had. Ultimately, "Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten" is as perfect and satisfying a virtual encounter as we could wish for. It is one of the great portraits of a rock-and-roll spirit that burned out all too quickly.

Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten (127 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated but contains profanity and drug content.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company