Wednesday, January 14, 2009

First DVD of the new year, Part 1: Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten

We've held on to this disc for almost a month now. I have so much to say about it I'm going to have to break it into at least two parts. Here's the first.

I ran out and bought Global-A-Go-Go by the Mescaleros soon after watching this comprehensive, heart-tugging, often exasperating movie, and I'm on the lookout for a good 101'ers collection as well. The Future Is Unwritten fully immerses you in the arc of Joe Strummer's life without ever putting him on a pedestal. The inspirational, conscientious, warm Joe and the capricious, superficial, flaky Joe are saluted and dissected in one complicated, all-too-human portrait.

The central gimmick is both brilliant and exasperating: friends, family, exes, ex-bandmates, and party-crashing celebrities all gather round a campfire and share their memories of the deceased in a sort of post-punk Burning Man-esque wake. It's a nice way to frame the story, and the viewer can feel as though he or she is there with everyone, singing along with old punk and country songs, warming cold hands, smoking, drinking and sharing the camaraderie.

The exasperating part of this is that, in some kind of fit of arty pretentiousness, director Julien Temple decided to leave every speaker anonymous, perhaps thinking that the lack of captions would aid us in feeling we wandered into this place and are listening to a group of strangers talk about their friend. The actual effect is the opposite; we are removed from the action because we're constantly trying to figure out who the hell everybody is. We're meant to be experiencing a ritual, and end up taking notes, running to the computer, or fast-forwarding.

Now, most people will recognize Mick Jones, Topper Headon, and fucking Bono (to be fair, he's far less pompous here than in that Leonard Cohen documentary, mostly talking about being a teenager at his first Clash show); some of us will go, "Hey, that's Palmolive/Richard Dudanski/Don Letts/Pearl E. Gates, etc; others, wanting an introduction to an unfamiliar musician they've got a hunch they should be checking out, will sit there playing guessing games and not get half of what's being talked about. I've never seen a movie in more dire need of footnotes, and I've seen the film version of Joyce's Ulysses twice. Happily, the bonus interviews on the DVD helpfully identify many of the cast members (though Palmolive, among others, does not appear; perhaps she spent the rest of the interview talking about Jesus, and there wasn't any more usable footage) so that we could learn, for instance, that this one middle-aged guy with big glasses is actually Micky Foote, who produced that life-altering first Clash album.

Aside from that major flaw, the movie is fascinating and thoroughly entertaining: fifty years of history seen through the eyes and words of a magnanimous-yet-often-ridiculously-harsh punk ideologue with superhuman drive and charisma who tore through life in search of connection and excitement, made a difference, fucked up royally, and finally appeared to integrate all the paradoxical sides of his own nature, achieve some wisdom, and have a little bit more fun before his heart gave out without warning in 2002.

Aside from the campfires (echoing Strummer's own predilection for campfires in his final years), the other recurring motif is clips from Strummer's BBC radio show; we hear him spinning one great record after another and rhapsodizing about the songs, the artists, the culture, the emotions and keeping us coming back to the importance of music itself in his life. Like John Lennon before him, Joe was simultaneously bent on conveying a Big Serious Message For The People, and helplessly in love with the pure joy of simple, fun, dumb old rock and roll because that's where the juice is.

There is a beautiful scene in the weird Clash movie Rude Boy where, after about an hour of the Clash being intense, intimidating and aloof, we see Joe (I think it's the scene where he has to tell the title character, a Clash roadie, that they've decided to sack him) silently stroll over to a piano and pound out the sweet old New Orleans song "Come On Baby, Let The Good Times Roll". He makes it sound like the greatest hymn ever written. It's a beautiful gesture to this confused kid, a statement of "it's not working out but let me just share a little piece of myself before you go", and a moment where Joe drops his militant tough guy persona long enough to reveal the kind-hearted soul underneath. It made sense; being a kind-hearted soul is a risky proposition in this world, and only a kind-hearted soul who'd been screwed over countless times for excessive kindness would be likely to notice this state of affairs enough to write a lyric like
Hate and war! The only thing we've got today!
And if I close my eyes, it will not go away!

We follow the life of diplomat's son John Mellor from his birth in Turkey and childhood spent everywhere from Egypt to Mexico to Germany to Malawi, and it's plain how this international upbringing fed his later interest in world events and world music. We get the impression of his parents being likeable, progressive people who were driven by class pressures to send their sons off to boarding school, which clearly left scars both on older brother David, a shy misfit who flirted with fascism before committing suicide, and younger brother John, who spent the rest of his life both rebelling and trying to create community in reaction to being cut off from his family, while at the same time nursing a guilt complex for being a child of privilege, which led to him playing an ever-changing set of roles, constantly reinventing himself in search of something meaningful and relevant. Yes, it's true, Joe Strummer was always a bit of a poser. At the same time it's hard not to agree with Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones when he bristles, "I don't care where he came from, he weren't no phony!"

Temple is relentlessly clever with the editing throughout the movie; the early boarding school years are peppered with clips from old English schoolboy movies and Lindsay Anderson's If. When young John Mellor (not yet "Woody" or "Joe") leaves school, we're treated to the final scene of If (SPOILER: Think Columbine starring Malcolm McDowell) while "Kick Out The Jams" blasts in the background. It all works for the most part, because there are so many home movies and photos available that the clips work as punctuation, context, and amusing in-jokes without taking over the early scenes; later, clips from movie versions of 1984 and Animal Farm keep turning up all through the Clash years, as if to say there was a touch of Orwellian mind control to the punk ethos. (And we could certainly have a field day arguing back and forth on that one, but it's a hoot to see how Joe's views on, say, "hippies" and pot-smoking, evolved over the years.)

A real treat that shows up on occasion is a few pieces of animation built from drawings that Joe did himself. (He had a knack for cartooning, his figures slightly reminiscent of those of recently-passed artist and Clash friend Ray Lowry.) There is one riveting moment set to a wonderfully clattering low-fi rendition of Slim Harpo's "Shake Your Hips" by Joe's first successful band, the 101'ers, that makes me want to jump out of my seat as drawings of the 101'ers spring to life in a crescendo of mad, feral one-chord bopping that sounds like Bo Diddley and the Fall thrown in a blender. It's just a bunch of drawings, but you feel like you are there, it's so urgent. And of course, this is just the warmup.

Richard Dudanski (a legendary drummer and intriguing figure in his own right) and other ex-101'ers get in some good stories in the chapter covering the history of that band and the squat community they grew out of (which Joe became the de facto leader of and which evaporated quickly as he moved on---he was a born ringleader); we also meet Dudanski's wife Esperanza Romero and her sister Paloma, Joe's girlfriend at the time (better known as Palmolive, the Slits' original drummer---later on, we get some tantalizing seconds of Slits footage; god, she was something back then). The bohemian pub-rockabilly of the 101'ers was on the verge of hitting it big on the London scene, but the Zeitgeist interfered in the form of a shared gig with the Sex Pistols.

We know this part of the story. A stunned Joe is shocked out of his complacency by the new paradigm shift and is moved to junk everything familiar to him and set out on a new course. Enter Bernie Rhodes, who did not agree to appear in this movie, but who is captured through audio clips, pontificating outrageously in a voice uncannily reminiscent of Pete Townshend. Rhodes is of course key to the story, but he's something of a cipher himself. While Malcolm McLaren guided the Pistols like a Situationist charlatan out to stir up shit for the sake of stirring up shit, Rhodes comes off as a true believer in his own hype who drove his charges to great heights of inspiration when he wasn't sabotaging them with nasty mind games. To Joe, a natural leader without a sense of direction of his own, Bernie was someone worth following, and he did so for years. There's an interesting moment where Dudanski reveals he could have been the Clash's original drummer, but upon meeting Rhodes, he refused to work with him. (He did all right, joining the early Raincoats---before being replaced by sister-in-law Palmolive---moving on to Public Image, Basement 5, and then rejoining the Raincoats again, among other activities.)

But whatever you think of Rhodes, he was the one who brought Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Keith Levene together; there wouldn't have been a Clash if he hadn't made it happen. Somebody needed to say to Joe and Mick, "write about what's around you" rather than string together cliched rock and roll lyrics. They wrote the songs, but it took someone else to fire their imaginations to write the songs they wrote. It's hard to imagine now how badly punk was needed in the 70s. (You kids have no idea, now get off my lawn, etc etc etc.) As a catalyst, you can't fault Rhodes. Later on, he proved to be a problem. Over and over again.

Levene, of course, was the first to go, and not the last Strummer bandmate to succumb to a drug problem. (Though not before making his mark in Public Image, working with Dudanski during their Metal Box sessions.) Poignantly, Levene reminisces in the firelight about how Joe loved his guitar playing and how Keith lobbied hard to get Joe to join the band, only to be forced to leave. (Levene is now rumored to be collaborating with Slits guitarist Viv Albertine---I hope we get to hear that!) Terry Chimes joins on drums, and they record that debut album. We get some great early Clash rehearsal footage where we see a speed-crazed, driven band in a noisy little box of a room shaping their racket into something revolutionary. We see Joe's demeanor change from the goofy beatnik squatter to a surly, stiff-yet-wildly-agile raging frontman flanked by youngsters Mick and Paul.

Paul Simonon is not here, but Mick Jones gets a lot of face time. Affable, slightly silly, possibly stoned and/or drunk, he giggles incessantly and then catches you off-guard with a perfectly insightful observation. There's a wonderful bit where he gestures out a balcony window at the Westway in London at night. "If you want to write a song, just look out your window. It's all out there." Another time, he stops and listens to the noise below. "The roar of the sounds like our music." And it does.

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