I'm beginning to suspect that my critical defenses droop when it comes to one John Graham Mellor. But really, the film was great, a welcome palate cleanser from the cloying music biopic formula — the lone genius shadowed by early trauma who finds success, is brought down by addiction and then rises triumphant or dies tragically — that afflicts even the best of the lot.
In several ways, The Future is Unwritten resembles Julien Temple's other doc about the same period, the irreverent The Filth and the Fury. Like the Sex Pistols film, this one uses lots of scratchy archival footage — including Strummer's childhood home movies, rehearsals and club gigs — animation (based on Strummer's sketches) and seemingly random fill-in footage (mostly of 1984 and Animal Farm).
And although conventional wisdom has always portrayed the Pistols as good despite their artifice, and the Clash as sincere and pure, and therefore good, when you see their stories side by side, the two bands begin to look like mirror images of each other. Although Bernie Rhodes is no Malcolm McLaren, the film makes him out to be similarly smart both in recognizing real talent (and burning ambition) in Strummer, Mick Jones and the still-smokin'-hot Paul Simonon, and in packaging the band to fill the rebellion niche in Burning London. (Why else would there be footage of their first rehearsal ever?)
According to former 101er bandmates, Strummer cooly dropped his hippie crew for the promise of punk notoriety. No surprise that Strummer was sometimes a dick. But nonetheless, the interviews with friends from different times of his life, even with Mick Jones, are generous and make it clear he was loved.
But while the doc follows a roughly chronological line, Temple's not afraid to break the timeline through a couple of motifs. Visually, he films a lot of the talking head interviews around campfires in Brooklyn, London, Ireland and Granada. Once you find out the personal meaning that campfires took on for Strummer late in his life, it becomes a touching human detail. Sonically, the movie is strung around one of Strummer's BBC radio shows, where he genially played all the sounds that moved him, whether it was Colombian cumbias, South African kwaito, rockabilly, Jamaican reggae or deep American soul.
The film devotes an interesting segment to Strummer's post-Clash hangover, during which he disappeared, ran off to Granada, acted in and scored a couple of films and eventually started playing again, in Latino Rockabilly War and the Mescaleros. It seems by the end of his life Strummer was finally comfortable with himself, his family and his music, and that is the happiest ending one could hope for.
I've been thinking about Strummer's commitment to social justice around the world, and aside from Green Day and Manu Chao, there don't seem to be many Clash heirs running around, at least in the Anglo-American rock world. Wearing politics on one's sleeve is not cool, it seems.