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Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten

by Lauren Gitlin August 22, 2008 1:46 pm
Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten The margin of error in the execution of a music documentary is as wide as the spectrum of bands that have been covered within the genre. That is to say, some succeed in being not only portals into a more refined understanding of a band, but in being themselves works of art on film. Others... well, let's just say others do not. Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten falls somewhere near the higher end of the spectrum, with moments of greatness that are dulled somewhat by its cinematic failings.

The movie has at least one thing going for it: the subject matter could not be more fascinating. Unless you're a Clash fanatic, even the amateur rock aficionado will find revelations in the historical narrative and footage. The director, Julien Temple, has a unique perspective on things, being that he was himself a scenester who ran with the Clash and the Sex Pistols during their rise to fame, and much of the footage is original stuff that he shot in the late Seventies. He had an eagle's eye view of the story as it unfolded, and for the most part, this works in his favor. The film tells the story not just of the Clash and of Strummer, but of the musical revolution -- and evolution -- taking place in London and America in the late Seventies and early Eighties, and it's an exhilarating thing to witness.

The special features on the DVD are few, but they serve to highlight both the movies strengths and weaknesses. (For the audiophile, we're given the option of watching in Stereo 2.0 or Dolby Digital 6.1, and there's also the theatrical trailer, neither of which require much in the way of explanation.)

Unseen Campfire Interviews: The film is structured as vintage footage mingled with a series of "campfire interviews," which were modeled on Strummer's own affinity for campfires as a place to experience community and an exchange of ideas. He famously began holding these campfires after he'd performed at England's Glastonbury Festival, and it became a prominent motif over the course of his life. Temple appropriated this idea as a way to interview a slew of pop culture figures from Clash guitarist Mick Jones to Strummer's ex-girlfriend and artist Deborah van der Beek to actors Johnny Depp (still costumed, to rather ridiculous effect, as Captain Jack Sparrow) and John Cusack to Bono about the far-reaching influence that Joe's music and life has had on generations of people and the music and art they produce. It's a quaint idea and one that should work in theory. But the constant jump cuts between archived footage and the seemingly random array of interview subjects serves only to fragment what could otherwise have been a cohesive story. Oftentimes you find yourself wondering why in the hell you should care what people like Damien Hirst have to say about Strummer. The interview subjects that are most poignant -- those consisting of former bandmates and other musicians -- are all present in the theater release, and the outtakes don't provide a hell of a lot of added flair.

Director's commentary: This feature is riveting both because it provides insight into the process of making the film and because it affords an insider's take on the historical events that were documented. As mentioned previously, Temple was a part of the scene that he is chronicling, and as such his commentary is yet another colorful voice contributing to the telling of the story, one that was not articulated as prominently in the theater release. His commentary provides a personal touch that only emphasizes the wistful poignancy with which we're left when the movie ends.

Buy it now.

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