Music Films At MIFF – The Future Is Unwritten:Joe Strummer


The Future Is Unwritten: Joe Strummer
Just a few years prior to his death Joe Strummer came into the Triple R studios in Melbourne and spent an hour with myself and Patrick Donovan of The Age (who had brought a six-pack of VB for us to share). The former Clash front man was talkative, friendly and affable but still feisty. (A punk grown old gracefully?) I don’t know about Patrick but it was one of my personal highlights.
I had lived in London during The Clash’s formative years, and had earlier seen the graffiti for the 101’ers. Then I had seen them at Festival Hall in 1982, in a performance that reminded my of the Stones in their Exile On Main Street period, ragged but brilliant. So I felt some connection with Strummer’s history and his music. I even recall sitting in my north London bedsit listening to John Peel play them. It always seemed to me that The Clash were one of the few English bands to transcend the punk movement by dint of their musicality and their musical influences. This made their story even more complex and interesting. At the end of his life, Strummer was still making music with the Mescaleros – and a music that reflected his musical diversity and passions.
So, I am pleased to report that director Julien Temple’s homage to Strummer – which in many ways is also an homage to the Clash and their abiding influence – was one of the highlights of the festival’s music films. Temple admitted that it was difficult to make a film about a ‘friend’ but he has succeeded in showing most of the facets of Strummer’s character and he resists the temptation to deify his friend.
The film’s budget must have been extraordinary because the production values were about as good as anything you are ever likely to see when it comes to music docos. There was the inclusion of animation, special effects and clips from other films to give the impression of a feature film rather than a mere documentary. By the end you get a glimpse into the very soul of Strummer: a complex, Machiavellian, obstinate, insecure moody and ultimately likeable musician. Of course, Strummer was flawed: but better a flawed hero than a perfect non-entity.
Temple was honest enough to give a straight-shooting answer when asked at the post-screening Q&A session why Bono and Johnny Depp were included. (Strangely, Bono had his own personal campfire). ‘For the money, mate!’
Temple has already dealt with the rise of punk and the Sex Pistols in The Filth and the Fury and his feature film Absolute Beginners, while a commercial failure, was stylish and went on to become a cult classic (some of the panache and imagination of that film weaves its way into this story). The Clash story has also already been told by Don Letts’ in Westway To The World.
At over two hours, The Future is Unwritten is the definitive work on Strummer’s life and it is hard to imagine that it will ever be bettered. Of course, there is a huge archive of material, including Strummer’s own BBC programs that saw him as a musical expeditionary. There are his old bandmates from the 101’ers and The Clash (minus Paul Simonon) plus a variety of celebrities, some of whom seem to have a marginal connection, such as John Cusack, Johnny Depp, Jim Jarmusch, Bono and even Martin Scorsese.
The best illustration of Strummer’s ethos is seen with The Clash reunion, which could have been for millions of dollars but instead was for a fireman’s benefit gig. I think that says it all.

Brian Wise

Brian Wise was the Editor of Addicted To Noise‘s Australian site from 1997 – 2002. The site won two ONYA Awards as Best Online Music Magazine in 1999 & 2000. He has also been Editor since its reincarnation in 2013. He also presents the weekly music interview program Off The Record on 102.7 Triple R-FM ( in Melbourne. It is networked to 45+ stations across Australia on the Community Radio Network and is a four-time winner of the Best Music Program Award from the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia. In 2012, it was nominated as a finalist in the Excellence in Music Programming category. Brian was also the Founding Editor & Publisher of Rhythms Magazine and is now its Senior Contributing Editor.

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