The documentary Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, which begins its Denver run on December 14 at the Starz FilmCenter, has a fine subject -- the combustible, highly quotable shouter for the Clash, who died in 2002 -- and a sympathetic, visually audacious director -- Julien Temple, the onetime music-video auteur behind two Sex Pistols flicks, 1980's The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle and 2000's The Filth and the Fury. But while the film is modestly entertaining and never dull, it doesn't come close to approximating the power of the Clash salvos heard on the soundtrack as the result of a too slick, too glib visual and stylistic approach that frequently stops at the surface rather than digging beneath it.
Temple clearly pines to work on major fiction films, but he's seldom gotten the chance, particularly in recent years. He seemed bound for big things following his helming of the flawed but promising 1986 effort Absolute Beginners, but 1988's Earth Girls Are Easy was an embarrassing (and deserving) flop. Moreover, his subsequent flicks, including 1996's Bullet, a Mickey Rourke vehicle that included a part for Tupac Shakur, and 2000's Pandaemonium, about the relationship between Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth, came and went with little notice.
Hence, Temple's been left to pour the majority of his abundant creative energy into rock-oriented projects, which explains why Future is positively bursting at the seams with quick cuts, busy montages and artsy imagery. Problem is, this whirlwind of activity frequently detracts from Strummer's story -- the one he's ostensibly trying to tell. Early sequences about Strummer's beloved older brother, David, who committed suicide at a young age, aren't nearly as affecting as they might be because Temple is too busy throwing chopped-up stock footage from British boarding-school movies at the screen to linger on this tragedy and the impact it might have had on Strummer. The same goes for interview footage of various people in Strummer's life. Temple doesn't bother to use on-screen titling to identify speakers -- apparently letting viewers know what's going on is uncool -- and stages the majority of these segments in dark outdoor locations near roaring fires. It's a move that's flamboyant but symbolically impotent. To make matters worse, comments by unknown or obscure figures are juxtaposed with ruminations by elite show-biz types (Johnny Depp, John Cusack, Matt Dillon, Bono) whose presence definitely contradicts the whole man-of-the-people vibe Temple works so hard to establish in other sequences.
To his credit, Temple acknowledges some unpleasant sides of Strummer's character -- the way he fired people willy-nilly and shrugged aside old friends (not to mention bandmates in his pre-Clash band, the 101'ers) when something better came along. Then again, the director underscores this behavior by inserting snippets from the animated version of George Orwell's Animal Farm -- a choice that turns these tangents into half-jokes, not eye-opening revelations.
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Fortunately, as the Clash begins its rise, Temple relies more heavily on vintage clips of the band in action or conversation, and their visceral impact gives the film a second wind. The band-biography elements are necessarily telescoped, but Temple does a good job of conveying the energy of the players onstage, as well as the loss of focus and the deleterious effects of fame. The contrast between the Clash of "White Riot" and the Clash of "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" speaks volumes, and so do a mohawked Strummer's sad attempts to keep the group going after dismissing sidekick/cohort Mick Jones for what he subsequently admits were silly reasons.
After the faux version of the Clash shuts down once and for all, Strummer begins a wandering phase, as does the film as a whole. And while attempts to portray Strummer's late-period comeback as the frontman of a combo he dubbed the Mescaleros in a positive light make sense from a structural standpoint, they don't really work dramatically -- and neither does the use of snippets from Strummer-hosted radio programs to make him seem like the film's narrator from the grave. Sure, he seems happier toward the end, but the Mescaleros' music is defiantly average, and the intensity and drive that was at the heart of his appeal in the first place is pretty much gone. Soon enough, so is he.
The Future is Unwritten will probably satisfy many Strummer fans, at least superficially. But for anyone who wants to know why he really mattered, director Temple's documentary is a poor place to start. Luckily, London Calling and the rest of the Clash's essential oeuvre is still available in your friendly neighborhood CD store. -- Michael Roberts