Clash Frontman Joe Strummer Gets The Julien Temple Treatment With Great Rock Doc Results
July 10, 2008 Leave a comment
“I need some feeling of some sort – hey, we’re all alive at the same time, at once, you know!”
Tracing Joe Strummer’s life from a “mouthy little git” to “punk rock warlord” (Strummer’s words) Julien Temple’s lively and loving documentary is full of insights and powerful ideology that render it immediately essential.
Born as John Mellor, the son of a British diplomat and a Scottish nurse, his family moved quite a bit during his childhood; living in Eygpt, Germany, and Mexico before John ended up at a boarding school in London. It was there that he was turned on to The Rolling Stones, learned to play the ukulele, and starting going by the name of “Woody” ostensibly because of an affection for Woody Guthrie. He went to art school with cartoonist aspirations (many of his drawings are sprightly animated and interspersed throughout) but music was his real calling and he was soon playing guitar in a band called the Vultures which didn’t last long. At the same time he toiled in such vacant career opportunities as carpet salesman and grave-digger. Because of his style of guitar playing he changed his name to Joe Strummer and angrily derided anybody who called him by another moniker.
As it certainly was suspected the center piece here is Strummer’s years with, as the hyped phrase goes, the “only band that matters”. Having disbanded another band – the popular pub rockers The 101ers, Strummer met guitarist Mick Jones and manager Bernie Rhoades. With bassist Paul Simonon, drummer Terry Chimes, and another guitarist Keith Levene they formed The Clash. They were immediately embraced by the blossoming British punk scene and signed to CBS within a year of their live debut (in 1976) with Chimes replaced by Topper Headon and Levene being axed. Great grainy footage abounds – most notably The Clash playing to a giant crowd of pogo-ing punksters at an Anti-Nazi League benefit. Their political themes, fueled by Strummer’s leftist views, were not lost on their fans as Bono from the mega-band u2 pretentiously but accurately explains: “I never knew who the Sandinistas were or where Nicaraqua was, the lyrics of Joe Strummer were like an atlas; they opened up the world to me and other people who came from blank suburbia.”
“I couldn’t believe we turned into the kind of people we were trying to destroy” Strummer laments as we see The Clash reap the rewards of success/excess. Contrasting professional arena concert footage from the early 80’s with the grimy black and white basement video of their early days of the same song illustrates beautifully his case: “we were part of the audience, part of the movement. Once it became thousands of miles removed from that I began to freak out.” Mick Jones final appearance was at the US Festival in 1983 (which again, is not properly identified) at which point Strummer, most likely way after the fact, describes the band as a “depleted force”. The Clash carried on however with some replacement blokes but the glory was gone so yep, here comes death. The death of the band that is, Strummer had many years of soundtrack work, acting roles (he appeared with Buscemi in my favorite Jim Jarmusch film MYSTERY TRAIN, solo recordings, and powerful performances with his band the Mescaleros. As a former global punk superstar he struggled a bit: “You meet a 17 year old guy and he’s never heard of The Clash; that’s the moment my feet touch the ground again.”
Strummer died of a congenital heart defect on December 22nd, 2002. Just weeks before he played with Mick Jones for the first time since 1983. It was an impromptu appearance with Jones getting on stage to join Strummer and the Mescaleros on the Clash classics “Bankrobber”, “White Riot”, and “London’s Burning”. The footage from that gig, albeit brief, adds enormously to the emotional last third of the documentary. Temple’s clever construction of the different strains of pop culture, even utilizing clips of ANIMAL FARM and the classic British flick IF…. to symbolize oppressive British society, is incredibly compelling from the before mentioned concert footage to even an appearance on South Park (1998). As both a enjoyable touching tribute for the long-time fan and a teaching-tool for the uninitiated, Julien Temple’s JOE STRUMMER: THE FUTURE IS UNWRITTEN is one of the best of its kind and a new addition to the definitive rocumentary checklist.