Beyond the Multiplex

In this interview and podcast, Julien Temple talks about his new film, "Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten" -- this year's most powerful documentary.

By Andrew O'Hehir
November 1, 2007 3:00PM (UTC)
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Look, I'm the wrong person to bring any objectivity to Julien Temple's movie "Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten." It partly concerns the pop culture of my own teenage years, always a treacherous zone for any critic (or any other human being). Furthermore, it's about a rock musician I once worshiped and then abandoned, and discovered again much later, who is now dead. So Temple's film will inevitably be viewed by people of roughly my age and with roughly my background as a kind of generational myth, which is likely to irritate the crap out of everyone else.


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Still, insofar as I can drag myself back from raving fandom to some kind of detachment, I think "The Future Is Unwritten" -- which is Temple's preferred title; the distributors have added "Joe Strummer" over his objections -- is the most powerful documentary I've seen all year, and one of the two or three best films ever made about an artist or musician. It marks both the high point and something like the moral justification of Temple's career, which includes big-money music videos for the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Janet Jackson, Tom Petty and many other artists, as well as a pair of splendid documentaries about the Sex Pistols and the 1977-78 punk revolution ("The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle" in 1980, and "The Filth and the Fury" in 2000).

Strummer, of course, was the lead singer and rhythm guitarist of the Clash, the Pistols' biggest rivals on the London punk scene. As Temple explained when I met him at Sundance last winter, he met Strummer in 1976 when the band was formed, and shot black-and-white footage of their first recording session in a studio at his film school. (That session produced the single versions of "White Riot" and "I'm So Bored With the USA," among other Clash songs.) One of the first things we see in "The Future Is Unwritten," in fact, is the 23-year-old Strummer spitting the lyrics to "White Riot" into the mike, without the musical track attached. It's an electrifying moment, rock history in the making.

Although Temple's movie is indeed a history of how Strummer, his songwriting partner Mick Jones, and the rest of the Clash rose from being London punk avatars to international superstars -- and then fell into the gradual, bitter and ironic decay that goes along with that -- it's also something much more important. Always a master of discovering and manipulating footage from various sources, Temple has assembled an extraordinary archive of film and video that documents and illustrates various aspects of Strummer's life and career.


Temple has found home movies of the London squatter scene where Strummer, then known as Woody Mellor, first made his reputation, and early, grainy videotapes of Strummer's pre-Clash band, a hippie-ish R&B assemblage called the 101'ers (who had gotten pretty damn good before he abruptly broke them up and turned his back on his squatter pals to become a punk icon). To capture the decrepit and claustrophobic atmosphere of England in the years of Strummer's childhood -- he grew up as John Graham Mellor, the privileged kid of a British Foreign Office diplomat -- Temple borrows bits of a legendary BBC adaptation of George Orwell's "1984" (starring Peter Cushing) and the animated version of Orwell's "Animal Farm."

Several of the doodles and cartoons with which Strummer filled his notebooks are turned into charming little animations, demonstrating that this driven and almost monomaniacal character had a whimsical side. Even the central weakness of most documentaries concerned with recapturing the past, the inevitable talking-head reminiscences, are handled marvelously. Temple assembles many of Strummer's old friends and colleagues from various periods of his life around campfires in London, New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere, in tribute to the campfires Strummer himself hosted at British raves late in his career.

At first, it bugged me that Temple never identifies these interviewees on the screen. Sometimes it's obvious, as when a decrepit-looking Mick Jones cheerfully admits to being a massive pothead, or when Clash drummer Topper Headon, looking like an aging accountant in a dusty-pink pullover, discusses his lengthy heroin addiction and his ejection from the band. And you're probably going to recognize Bono and Johnny Depp and Martin Scorsese. But there are moments when you sit there wondering: Isn't that that British artist who saws pigs in half, whatever his name is? (Damien Hirst, and yes, it is.) Is that Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, or just some schmo who resembles him? Is that really what Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols looks like today?


It's still a debatable decision, but I relaxed about it. I don't actually think Temple is challenging his viewers: Are you hip enough to identify some minor rock celebrity of years gone by? His idea is more that Strummer's hippie ex-girlfriends and 101'er bandmates have just as much to tell us as Jim Jarmusch and Courtney Love do, and in some cases more. There's a tremendous dignity and pathos in the spectacle of all these middle-aged survivors, many of them quite a bit worse for wear, gathered together to remember a maddening, prodigious and contradictory person they loved very much.

Joe Strummer yearned for fame, and in the process of seeking it left many of his oldest friends feeling betrayed. He made some of the most memorable and influential records in rock history, although his musical talent was modest, at best. He yearned to use his fame and his bully pulpit to spread a political and social message, modeling himself self-consciously after Woody Guthrie. While he succeeded in doing that, far beyond what many people recognized at the time, he also fell into virtually all the familiar traps of rock stardom -- and could only weep bitterly when he heard American troops blasting "Rock the Casbah" as they bombed Baghdad during the first Gulf War in 1991.


Temple's film is a passionate testament to his own conflicting emotions about Joe Strummer, and the ultimate evidence of that emotion lies in its powerful combination of cinematic craft and honesty. "The Future Is Unwritten" never shirks from the less attractive sides of Strummer's personality, nor from the petty hypocrisies and pseudo-Stalinist conformity of the punk revolution itself. It doesn't look away from aging and death, which have begun to loom pretty large for those of us who can actually remember the 1970s. It doesn't look away from the beautiful, ravaged faces of its interviewees, as they were and as they are.

I look at them and see fragments of myself, both as the middle-class dad I am now and as the 16-year-old kid in pursuit of something (I didn't know what, and I probably still don't) who once cut school on a California winter afternoon to go meet Joe Strummer in the import section of a record store, and have him scrawl his autograph across the sleeve to "White Man in Hammersmith Palais." Not many other people showed up at Tower Records that day, and as I told Temple, Strummer spent several minutes chatting kindly with me and my friends. "Of course he did," he smiled. "He needed you."

Maybe he did, but as Temple's wonderful movie reminded me, we needed him more. Whatever Joe Strummer's flaws as a man, a musician and a political thinker, he tried to use the machinery of pop culture against itself, tried to invent himself as a new kind of celebrity who could be both useful and human. I still don't know if it's possible, but it was a good idea.


Also this week, we've got a surprising and delightful film about the wannabe actors who perform as superheroes on Hollywood Boulevard and a pseudo-punk artifact of quite another kind, the 25th anniversary rerelease of Jean-Jacques Beineix's "Diva." I'm not reviewing the documentary "Darfur Now," but it's another laudable effort to rouse the slumbering American conscience about the gravity of that disaster. I tried to watch Ash Christian's ultra-indie high-school comedy "Fat Girls" and decided it just wasn't for me. It's done tremendously well with audiences at gay-oriented film festivals, though, and your results may vary.

Julien Temple on building a balloon in the backyard with Joe Strummer
Julien Temple has built a lucrative career making music videos and concert films for many of the biggest pop acts of the last three decades. But his heart has always belonged to the punk revolution of the late '70s, which he experienced firsthand as a young man in London, where he was born and raised. Temple's career as a director of feature films has been mixed. He made the cult-fave rock musical "Absolute Beginners" in 1986, but has never subsequently matched its success. As a documentarian of the punk era, though, he is without peer. Temple had already made the two most important movies about punk with his Sex Pistols diptych: "The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle," made immediately after the Pistols' implosion in 1980, and the retrospective "The Filth and the Fury," made 20 years later.

I met Temple last January at the Sundance Film Festival, just after the North American premiere of "Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten," which was literally 30 years in the making. (You can listen to this interview here or watch my BTM/IFC video segment on the film here.)


I gather Bono was at the premiere last night. Did you talk to him?

Yeah. He told me he thought it was a work of genius. I'm not sure whether that's good or bad.

It can't really be bad, can it? I mean, as we all know, works of genius don't always do so well commercially.

I don't really mind about that. As long as it hangs around for about 100 years or so, I don't care about the first weekend.


You're joking, sort of. But I kind of think people will still be watching this movie long after you and I are gone.

I think they will. Not because of me. Because of Joe.

Tell me how you first met Joe Strummer.

Well, I knew of him in the mid-'70s, because I was squatting in the same part of London as he was. He had the 101'ers, who were the emblematic London-squat band. I used to see him around at various places. His second big squat was just around the corner from where I was squatting. There's some footage in the film of him sitting outside on the steps of that house, loading up the van for a 101'ers gig. That was brilliant: Someone sent me an unprocessed roll of Super 8 film; they didn't know what was on it. It turned out to be that bit: The 101'ers outside the squat, loading up the van. That was magic.


And then, when punk began in London, he quit the 101'ers and became the focus of the Clash. I was well into what the Pistols were doing. Then I saw the Clash, and I saw Joe. It was strange to see him in this other situation, but he was obviously fantastic. I was in film school at the time, and I hustled my way into making a film about the Clash. So I got pretty close to him in '76. I shot all that black-and-white stuff you see in the film. I hadn't done anything with it until now.

That's just incredible footage. The beginning of the film, when we see him singing "White Riot" without the musical track.

That was the first time they recorded anything. I snuck them into the film school on a Sunday night. It was an illegal operation, which is good -- how it should be. The film school didn't know what the fuck was going on. There was no one there. We got into this old 1930s recording studio -- it was [legendary Hungarian-British director] Alexander Korda's recording studio. I smuggled them in and they laid down four or five tracks. It was the first time they recorded "White Riot," "Career Opportunities," "I'm So Bored With the USA" and "Janie Jones."

God! That was rock history being made.


Yeah, it was. And it sounds good. Anyway, I was intensely involved with them at that point. But, you know, two middle-class guys in the same room, at that time, was not a good thing. You were all meant to be off the street, you know? And I could never fake it. I am who I am. Joe was all Cockney accent, you know: "I'm off the street." So things got a little weird. Plus, Malcolm [McLaren, the Sex Pistols manager] was easier to work with than Bernie [Rhodes, the Clash manager]. He had less chips on his shoulder.

So I then concentrated on the Pistols. I was really in love with the Pistols. Both these movies were made with cameras stolen from the film school. It was a punk ideal. The whole thing was about that. But having moved over to the Pistols, that was like treachery to the Clash. It was all over. And I thought: They just became a fucking rock band; they should have self-destructed like the Pistols. Fuck the Clash, you know? I became a big Pistolian, a kind of propagandist.

So I never saw Joe, really. I saw him in New York or L.A., randomly, over the next 25 years. One day, after I was back in England -- I lived in L.A. for quite a while, and then I moved back to England, to the middle of nowhere, in Somerset, where my dad's from -- my wife said, "Oh, my best friend from school is bringing her new boyfriend down." Through the garden gates walked Joe Strummer.

I was trying to build a hot-air balloon with my kids, a big paper thing. I was making a real mess of it, and my kids were like: "Dad, you're no good. You're rubbish." Joe said, "OK, let's sort this out." We got stuck in, building this balloon together, and we finally got it going at just about dawn, and woke up the kids to tell them.

Then it was typical Joe. He suddenly said, "I want to live here. Is there anywhere near here I can find a place?" He ended up buying a farm up the road, so I spent the last 10 years pretty much living with him, when he was at home.

Did you interview him during that period? Did you already have the idea you might make a film about him?

No, I wasn't trying to make a film about him. He was just a friend, you know? We were hanging out. A lot of that interview stuff is from other sources. But when he died [of a heart attack, in 2002], it freaked us all out. I just couldn't believe it. It took me three years to come to terms with that, and everyone was saying, "OK, it's time to move on." I thought, well, I can't really move on unless I say something about him, because I loved him so much. Then I decided to try and make a film, because I knew I had this early stuff on the Clash which was sitting there.

Obviously Strummer's fans will want to see this film. But it's a complicated portrait of a complicated person. Your affection for him comes through clearly, but you don't look away from parts of his personality that were less attractive. It's very clear, for instance, that he was difficult to get along with, and that many of the friends who had supported him when he was nobody felt betrayed by him once he became well-known.

I didn't want to make a fan movie. But I hope it's a friend making a movie. I think his flaws were what made him great. He didn't really cover them up. He was a man of many contradictions, but that was his fuel. We're all flawed; that's what being human is about. I don't think it's a betrayal of Joe to show that. I think, and I hope, that he wouldn't like it unless you did that.

You also deal with the extraordinary arc of his life: He goes from being a London squatter in an R&B band ...

A hippie band!

A hippie band, to being this punk avatar to being a major rock star and then, after the Clash broke up, basically disappearing into a depression for 10 years.

Yeah, he felt a bit of guilt about how the band broke up. I think he did it for the right reasons. He was trying to stay true to himself, and he didn't like the clichéd commercial madness of being a global rock star, in the machine. But he did it in a kind of brutal way. It was pretty insane, firing Mick Jones, who was the Clash as much as Joe was. So he had to live with that, and I think he really didn't know where to go for a while. I think that was quite a bad place, which comes through in the film.

What makes the film work is that he was able to crawl out of that, and access other parts of his life he had shut away, bring them back. He became quite remarkable at the end, I think, with the Mescaleros and the campfires. [The Mescaleros were Strummer's final band, and he spent time traveling around England hosting campfire gatherings at raves.] There was this sense of the circle completing in Joe's life, even though it was cut short.

You use all this amazing archival footage to create a portrait of the '50s, '60s and '70s in England. Some of it is footage directly related to Joe's life, but a lot of it is more suggestive or evocative. It's an extraordinary work of collage, this movie.

Yeah, well, I like ripping things out of context and forcing them to mean something else. I like that way of treating archive -- brutally rip its neck off and stick it together with new feet, or something.

You've got footage from some film or television version of "1984" that I've never seen.

Yeah, that was a legendary broadcast. It was done live, it was one of the very first dramas on British TV, when the BBC was just beginning. They had a very funny introduction, saying: "If any viewers have a nervous disposition, you should turn off now, because we're going to show you something truly, truly chilling." Now, of course, we live in that fucking world. [Laughter.] And we don't bat an eyelid about it, so there you go.

There is a connection between Orwell and Joe, I think. It's an English thing -- well, it's a global thing now. But he was very much concerned with freedom of speech, with the idea that people should have their voice heard and shouldn't accept what they're told by governments and authority figures. We also used images from the animated film of "Animal Farm," which was used for a Clash single cover, for "English Civil War." It all kind of makes sense, I think.

I really hope this film will reach beyond the generation who grew up with the Clash. One of the things that was distinctive about Joe was the way he embraced all these different musical and cultural elements: dub and reggae, techno, Latin music, various kinds of world music. That was pretty unusual for a guy of that generation and background, even if it seems normal today.

Some of that comes from his childhood, which was very bizarre. Before he was a hippie, he was part of the British Foreign Office establishment as a diplomat's son. He was born in Turkey, he lived in Egypt, he lived in Mexico, speaking Spanish in school. He lived in Germany, he lived in Malawi, he lived in Tehran. This kid saw the world; we had his passport with all these mad stamps. That is bound to influence your take on things. So when the Clash got out of the first flush of the purist punk thing, they started bringing in different musical influences, not just reggae and rockabilly. Joe was a real pioneer, long before people were hip to world music.

You talked earlier about abandoning the Clash for the Sex Pistols. I couldn't deal with how rapidly the Clash's music shifted, at the time. It personally took me years to come to terms with the "London Calling" and "Sandinista!" albums. I had inhaled the punk ethos, in maybe a puritanical way, and I thought they had become a mainstream pop band.

Well, I did too. I thought they had sold out and become a rock band. I realize now how wrong I was. At the time I thought the Pistols did the right thing. Self-immolation was the way to go, and everything else was hypocrisy and selling out. You get wiser as you get older, and I certainly am very thankful for "Sandinista!" in particular. It's amazingly relevant music.

At the same time, at some point after those albums they did become just another rock band, didn't they? Certainly their late albums were pretty bad. It's painful for someone who was a fan to see that footage where Joe is trying to keep the band together with a whole new cast of characters, after he had fired Mick. What made him want to do that?

He was so signed up to the idea of the Clash as an instrument of change. He became more radical and more kind of preachy, with the last version of the band. I'm someone who is very interested in the second version of the Clash, frankly. I'm not the person to do it, but I think there should be a film about just that. I love some of the live shows I've got on bootleg tapes of that band. The album, where Bernie Rhodes snuck on all these synthesized drums and football chants, has a horrible aspect overlaid on it, but some of those songs are fucking great. I wouldn't close the door on that band.

I'll try to keep an open mind. There's an amazing moment, a little earlier, when Mick is still in the band but they've gotten so big that they're playing football stadiums in the United States. Some TV newsman interviews this girl outside and she says, "Oh, they're not punk anymore. They're a rock band. They're just like the Stones." That must have killed Joe -- that was exactly what he didn't want to become.

He thought he could learn the lessons of the Stones, you know? It's quite moving when he says, "We've made every fucking mistake in the book." He was always that honest. That's the great thing about making a film about Joe, over all other rock stars. No one else has ever been that honest with his audience. He fought very hard to maintain access to his life as a human being, rather than hiding behind sunglasses in a gated community or whatever. I think he was a kind of philosopher, as much as a musician.

Right -- he made some great music in his career, but I don't know that music was his No. 1 talent. When he and Mick were together in the Clash, he relied on Mick's musical abilities.

And in the Mescaleros, he relied on other people. Yeah, as he said about his guitar playing, "I don't go for the fiddly bits, because I can't do them."

That's right. He chose his last name as a literal description of his guitar playing.

Yeah, and he was a great rhythm guitarist. He played it like a drum, basically, and ripped his hands to pieces doing it. That energy and that total ferocious commitment to that rhythm was a big part of the Clash's music. But he wasn't really a musician.

Before he called himself Joe Strummer he called himself Woody. Wasn't that almost who he wanted to be -- an agitator or a political activist who happened to play the guitar, like Woody Guthrie?

I think the film isn't banging you on the head with politics, but it's a political film and Joe was a political animal, but in a really interesting way. He avoided, for the most part, the obvious hectoring or lecturing tone that the left is often forced to adopt, because it's desperate to try and say what it's got to say, and it doesn't have the luxury of owning the advertising business and the press and the TV networks, which the right-wing establishment does own. Joe was an interesting counter-figure to that, because he got inside the machine and tried to work with elements of style and fashion, all the shit that the machine exists on. He tried to wrest some way of saying things through it. You've got to do that, or you're not going to be heard.

"Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten" opens Nov. 2 at the IFC Center in New York, with other cities to follow. It's also available on-demand through IFC In Theaters on many cable-TV systems.

Fast forward: Caped crusaders on the couch in "Confessions of a Superhero"; the trendoid gorgeosity of "Diva," 25 years later
I vastly enjoyed Matt Ogens' documentary "Confessions of a Superhero" when I caught it last spring at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Texas, but it seemed like one of those winning little festival movies that was just a bit too peculiar for mainstream release. I'm grateful to say that I was wrong, and Ogens' intimate portrait of four would-be actors who eke out a living by donning superhero costumes and posing for tourist photographs on Hollywood Boulevard may soon be playing near you.

As Ogens' Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Incredible Hulk readily admit, they're just panhandlers with funny clothes who make their money by staying, barely, on the right side of the loitering and harassment laws. Batman, in fact, seems like a borderline personality with a scary past and a rage problem, despite his much-commented-upon resemblance to George Clooney. Wonder Woman is a one-time homecoming queen from Tennessee, and the Hulk is an African-American "country boy" from North Carolina who spent four years homeless -- and actually gets a pretty big acting break that may get him out of that green suit.

But the heart of the film is Christopher Dennis, the incredibly strange dude who's spent many years as the boulevard's Man of Steel. Dennis doesn't just play Superman, he is monumentally obsessed with Superman and owns one of the world's premier collections of Superman tchotchkes. By his own account, he's a former meth addict and the illegitimate son of one-time movie star Sandy Dennis (although her other relatives don't believe that), and Superman has given him a new lease on life. If you think he's odd, though, wait till you meet his girlfriend! Lest you fear a freak show, Ogens is never patronizing or condescending. In its own inimitably strange way, "Confessions of a Superhero" is an inspirational tale. (Opens Nov. 2 at the Pioneer Theater in New York and the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, Nov. 16 in Los Angeles and Nov. 21 in Denver. DVD release will follow in January.)

This is as hackneyed a sentiment as you can express, but I'm stunned to realize that it's been 25 years since the release of Jean-Jacques Beineix's "Diva," which you might describe as both the last New Wave film (meaning the French film movement of the '60s) and the first one (meaning the music and fashion moment of the early '80s). Certain things about the film still seem highly contemporary, by which I mean that "Diva" isn't about its perfunctory thriller plot but instead is about its own magnificent colors, its clothes and interiors, its languorous Parisian atmosphere -- the vast, empty lofts! the crashed cars! -- and of course its music. It briefly turned African-American soprano Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez into a celebrity, and while she can't act for beans, she sure sings the crap, over and over again, out of that aria from an obscure Italian opera called "La Wally," which itself became a trendoid signature of sorts. It's a supremely gorgeous and supremely shallow motion picture, but it believes in art with a capital A. And practically nobody does anymore. (Opens Nov. 2 at Film Forum in New York, with more cities to follow.)

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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