The Clash chapters of The Future Is Unwritten cover much the same ground as Don Letts' Clash film Westway To The World did, only quicker, with more of a focus on Strummer himself and with the benefit of another eight years' hindsight.
One big difference is that in the earlier movie, Topper Headon looks like walking death. He looks a lot better here, which is good to see, and gets to tell more of his story this time and not just wallow in shame and regret. And Topper's side of the story is well worth hearing. A phenomenal drummer who kicked the Clash's sound into high gear, Topper didn't even care much for the Clash's music at the start. Here he candidly admits that his goal was to join the band, make his name, and then move on to play "proper" music. Didn't quite work out that way, as the Clash were developing so fast that before long, Topper got a chance to play more diverse rhythms than he would have in some "normal" band, and began flowering as a composer in his own right. ("Washington Bullets", "Ivan Meets G.I. Joe", "Rock The Casbah") If he hadn't been seduced by the poppy, who knows what would have happened?
The Clash's early years go by so quickly it becomes a bit disorienting. Whole albums are skipped, we go from raw punk rock to London Calling in the blink of an eye, etc. The band history as a whole is less of a focus than the radical psychic change in our protagonist, who shifts from his carefree slacker persona to the stern, deadly serious representative of something bigger than himself. The Clash's mission was to redefine rock stardom (as opposed to many other punk bands whose stated goal was to do away with the concept completely...so they said anyway) and no one took that notion more seriously than Joe. There's a bitter irony in the contrast between: an early scene where Joe pontificates that he's studied all the mistakes of bands like the Stones and the Beatles, and the Clash are too smart to fall in those traps; and a later voiceover where Joe muses sadly that the Clash had made every possible mistake a band could make. Turns out that while it's hard enough to be successful in music at all, it's even harder to try to control what kind of success you do end up having.
The original punk scene was exclusive by necessity. There was such a powerful sense that music had gone horribly wrong, and it was time for a bottom-up movement to set it right, with all the ensuing dissent over what "wrong" or "right" might actually mean. Early punk was as much defined by what was not allowed as by what was. The Clash were as flash a group of rock stars as any that ever walked the earth, but success never sat well with Joe Strummer, even as he pursued it wholeheartedly. (More clever Julien Temple editing: When the Clash play their triumphant Bond's Casino engagement and meet Martin Scorsese, we jump-cut from a brutal boxing scene in Raging Bull to a dazed, seemingly punch-drunk Joe shaking his head onstage trying to get his bearings, as if to signal a foreshadowing of times to come.)
But one good thing about this movie is that you are never expected to swallow any notion that Joe was some sort of saint. I was surprised to discover that not only was he a bit of a ladies' man, he was often a prize jerk about it. "I wouldn't steal money from a friend (long dramatic pause) but I'd steal his girlfriend." You would not want to get in a fight with your girlfriend in the middle of a Clash tour, and if you did, it's a safe bet which bed you'd find her in the next morning. This is a bit beyond anything that can be explained away by "free love" ideals. Oh Joe, you cad!
On the other hand, from all indications, he respected and even revered his audience, knowing what a privilege it is to have fans who care about your music and what a responsibility you have to give those fans nothing less than 100%, whether that means performing live with breakneck energy at all times or cramming your lyrics with political observations, history lessons and manifestos to communicate something worthwhile to the crowd. Mick Jones was more comfortable with being a pampered rock star, but several interviewees accuse Joe of using Mick as a fall guy to express softer and less strident sentiments that didn't fit his own militant persona, thus leaving his own "hard" reputation intact. (For instance, the poignant "Lost In The Supermarket" was written by Joe, but sung by Mick. Too lightweight for Joe, supposedly. Let Mick be labeled as the "soppy" one.)
Meanwhile, Bernie Rhodes got the boot not long after the Clash's initial success. A voiceover from him is startling in its clueless dismissal of each member of the Clash; the man clearly had no idea what made the band work. The band seemed to be doing fine without him (after he admittedly got them off to a fine start), but after Sandinista! came out to a puzzled world that needed another 20 years to catch up, Strummer had a panic attack that he'd been going in the wrong direction and demanded that Rhodes be reinstated as manager. If there was one single action that destroyed the Clash, it may have been that one. The remaining years of the band are a non-stop circus of staged disappearances turned real (the first of many Joe Strummer career suicide pranks), catastrophic firings of first a drug-sodden Topper and a bratty, miserable Mick Jones, and a last incarnation of the Clash that people don't usually like to talk about. (Don Letts completely omits the Cut The Crap period from Westway To The World.)
I never actually heard all of Cut The Crap, but boy, do I remember the hype. Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon, along with a fresh crew of new boys, were going to take the Clash back to their populist punk roots and reconnect with those guttersnipes by whom the truth is only known, blah blah. The public didn't buy it, probably smelling the desperation. Temple unearths a striking clip of the "new" Clash being interviewed. Joe introduces the new band members while Paul scowls sullenly in the back, looking like he'd rather be anywhere else. The interviewer asks Joe how he feels about the new group. "Great! Do ya hear me? GREAT!" Joe snarls back, as if he's trying to force himself to believe his own words. Of course, New Clash went over about as well as New Coke, while Mick Jones and Don Letts were already tearing up stages together as Big Audio Dynamite. The real story seemed to surface in the heartbreakingly beautiful valedictory single, "This Is England", where Joe sounds like a broken man despondently combing through the wreckage of his ideals, searching for clues. It was one of Joe Strummer's finest recorded moments, but it wasn't enough to salvage the Clash legacy. One more laughable quote from Rhodes about the possibility of the Clash carrying on without Strummer (Simonon's perspective is most missed here; did he finally say to Bernie, "NO MORE!" in the end?) and the Clash story ends, like a deflated balloon.
The movie suddenly changes tone as we enter the "Wilderness Years". What does it mean to be Joe Strummer in a world without the Clash? We follow the aimless career of a disoriented drifter who can't seem to find an artistic niche. Dabbling in acting (I saw Straight To Hell in a theater when it came out; at the time it looked like it was more fun to make than it was to watch, and I doubt that it's aged well), movie scores (I recall hearing the Walker soundtrack album once, and it sounded pretty good) and solo projects (Earthquake Weather sounded terrible to me when it came out; wonder how it's aged?) and raising his kids, Joe Strummer seemed more lost than anything. Subbing for Philip Chevron in the Pogues (I saw this lineup at the Fillmore in the eighties; it was a fantastic show) and later filling in for Shane McGowan himself kept him in the public eye for a while, but without a real band of his own to work with and against, Joe Strummer became the perfect candidate for a role that no longer existed.
So what is one to do with the rest of one's life? I know the feeling of spending years committed to a project and falling into depression when that project no longer exists. There is a weird, melancholy sequence where we see Joe, alone in the studio, pacing madly, working on overdubs for a musical score for a friend's film project. Plunking a piano, trying out handclaps that he ends up hating, moaning a bottomlessly sad melody, and bantering with an unseen engineer, he looks like the loneliest man in the world. Fortunately, the movie (or Joe's life) does not end on this eerie note.
Suddenly, we meet a new wife (we aren't told what brought Joe's previous marriage to an end though we can imagine---Joe's Achilles heel seemed to be his relationships with women; all of his exes tend to talk about him with equal parts admiration and annoyance) who seems to arrive at the same time that Joe discovers the rave scene and sees the counterculture turned upside-down and a new paradigm in which hippies and punks are nothing but two sides of the same coin. Approaching middle age, our protagonist gets it that he no longer has to pledge allegiance to a particular subculture, and there is a place for all of the personas he adopted in the past to exist in one integrated alive human being. Now our punk patriarch begins holding marathon outdoor campfires where minds can meet and ideas are shared, and the seeds for a new band, the Mescaleros, are sowed.
The three Mescaleros albums are something special, the culmination of what Joe Strummer was all about: catchy, rocking tunes full of humor, farsighted social observation and unpredictably eclectic international influences. I ignored this stuff when it came out because I didn't wanted to be let down by another disappointing Joe Strummer solo project. Hearing the Mescaleros material in this movie made me change my mind. Global A Go Go just might be a better album than London Calling, time will tell. If Joe Strummer had to die young, at least he ended it all on a high note. And The Future Is Unwritten gives us a complete picture of an artist/commentator whose sharp, critical mind always took the backseat to an impulsive, idealistic heart. What ultimately makes this more than just another rockstar biopic is Strummer's ongoing, burning need to establish a deep communication with his audience, and his successful struggle to keep his sense of wonder intact in spite of it all. "Hey!" we see him exclaim at a huge Clash stadium gig mid-film. "We're all alive on this planet at the same time!" It's one of those statements that seems so obvious on the surface, and so improbably amazing when you start thinking about it. We're all alive on this planet at the same time; how do we make use of this chance? Thanks for leaving us with that thought, Joe.