Julien Temple's documentary, Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, about the career/life of Clash and Mescaleros’ frontman Joe Strummer is, to be generous, an engaging collection of sometimes rare video clips and new interviews that offers an adequate introduction to the singer and irritatingly dogmatic politico. To be more frank, it—like The Filth and The Fury, Temple’s Sex Pistols’ documentary—is something of a cobbled together mess of new and vintage clips that leaves someone like me—a Clash fan from jump--fairly bored. Not that I can’t find a way to talk about it; I can always do that; it’s more that I wouldn’t want to encourage you to go see it.
About the documentary itself: while it is no doubt a nice pleasure to watch documentary clips of the Clash throughout their career (nothing warms a middle aged heart more than mass mediated self-absorption), and while it was both informative and charming to learn (and see) Joe’s early life and upbringing as well as his life post-Clash (about which I knew little), the composition of the story telling was baffling.
Temple tells Strummer’s story by interposing archive footage of Strummer with interview clips of a variety of unnamed friends sitting around campfires in different global locations. When you know the person being interviewed, and understand their connection to Strummer, this is charming. When you don’t know the person and/or don’t know their connection, this is distracting and irritating (“Who is that bearded guy?” “Why is Johnny Depp being interviewed?”)
What do we learn? In addition to some small bits about Joe’s upbringing and immediate family (which are, in fact, informative), by the time the film ends, we’ve learned that Strummer spent the last several years of his life attending hippie campfires where he and his family enjoyed life between his touring and recording. The campfires used as a narrative device in the film—in both the U.K. and the U.S.—are attended by a number of Strummer’s friends and colleagues in something of a tribute to Joe’s love of the idea of folk-hippie togetherness. That’s all well and fine, but I would have preferred to have these friends interviewed in the locations most important to their connection to Strummer. Show me the studios, the stages, the streets and alleys. Don’t show me repeated clips of friends sitting around a campfire.
In addition to my irritation with the narrative device, then, I was also reminded of why I never liked Joe Strummer, even while loving his energy and sense of musical innovation: angry dogmatism, notably angry political dogmatism, has never worked for me. Let me be clear: I’ve never minded public jerks--John Lydon’s ridiculous interpersonal and public behavior has always seemed oddly charming. I wouldn’t want him for a friend, but he’s fun to watch even in his worst moments. There is a difference, however, between political dogmatism and a powerful sense of one’s personal tastes. John Lydon exhibits the latter—his politics are basically a politics of “being oneself,” “being honest,” what have you. Lydon might not like you, but it’s a matter of taste. You got the sense in the late 70s and 80s that if Strummer didn’t like you, it was because he was certain that you were wrong.
Let me clarify one step further: I was actually sympathetic with Strummer’s oft-times sophomoric Marxism. While I didn’t share these beliefs, he seemed to have given some thought to them before taking them on. No, it was his more facile belief in “punk” as a materially identifiable object that I never quite understood. Strummer always made “punk” sound as if it were a religion or club rather than a loose philosophy. When Strummer put together a post-Mick Jones Clash and had to make sure they were “punks” from 1976, you had to question his reasoning. Was there something more pure, more “authentic” about them because of the date of their “conversion.” There was always something about Strummer’s beliefs in “punk,” at least in the early part of his life, that was too simple because it was so clearly defined.
It is precisely his early dogmatism which makes his beliefs later in life so problematic (or irritating), at least for me. And this is where my response gets personal; this is where I knew that my response to Strummer was touching something more personal in me. Maybe I’m not being fair, but while Strummer’s punk dogmatism made me apprehensive, his easy abandonment of these same ideas gave me a different reason to squirm. Toward the end of the film, there is a clip of Strummer, in the later years of his life, sitting in front of a campfire. Strummer proclaims that while he used to deride hippies, he now believes that we should all be hippies, or some sorta punk-hippie Prius. While I’m completely down with the idea that people get to change their beliefs—hell, I’ve changed so many times that I get dizzy trying to tell my life story—but such a change makes one’s earlier dogmatism all the more irritating.
Here’s the problem: when you believe in the truth of one’s own tastes, you can continue to do that as your tastes change, and, more importantly, you can allow others to strongly believe in their own tastes, and change them at will. However, when you believe in an idea, like “Marxism” or “punk” the way Strummer did, you find yourself belittling and criticizing all nonbelievers; you find yourself sounding as if you despise them. The problem with the logic of the film, however, is that it wants us to both praise Strummer’s early dogmatic attitude as well as his newer free spirit worldview. And it simply can’t work both ways if I found myself to be a target of your earlier dogmatism.
I’ve attempted to rewrite this review/critique/rant numerous times, and it always comes off more bitter, more angry, than I mean it to be. In many ways, this is simply my moment—courtesy of the intertubes—to get a chance to express my frustration with those who criticized me in the name of some abstract principle and who conveniently changed their minds as their material circumstances changed (e.g., friends who criticized me for having a child in the name of environmentalism, only to have several children of their own years later). Rather than positioning this as a bitter “gotcha” directed at old wounds, however, I would prefer that you read this as my attempt to ask for shared generosity with one’s beliefs, even in the midst of youthful anger. If your own future is unwritten--and to large degree it is--be a little more understanding in the present.