archival material provides a sad and subtle reminder of his absence, of the void left by his sudden death at 50, from a heart attack, in 2002.
Like Mr. Temple’s two movies about the Sex Pistols — the eyewitness “Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle” (1980) and the revisionist “Filth and the Fury” (2000) — “Joe Strummer” is not so much a portrait as a collage.
And we hear abundant testimony from Mr. Strummer’s friends, lovers, colleagues and admirers. They are not identified in the course of the movie, though some (Bono, John Cusack, Steve Buscemi, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) are not hard to recognize. Mr. Temple gathers them around campfires with other, less well-known people, and by the time the metaphorical significance of the fires is explained, late in the film, it’s clear that they represent Mr. Strummer’s egalitarian, bohemian spirit.
The story Mr. Temple tells is, like most rock ’n’ roll biographies, one of self-invention. Joe Strummer was born John Graham Mellor. His father was a diplomat, and Joe’s youth was more cosmopolitan and more privileged than his scruffy, proletarian musical persona might suggest. An art school dropout in the best British rock ’n’ roll tradition, he spent the early 1970s as a hippie vagabond, taking the name Woody (as in Guthrie) and bumming and busking around London and other English cities. He was part of the West London squatter scene and the leader of a band called the 101ers when punk rock arrived.
The Clash did not invent punk — who did is the subject of endless argument among partisans of Malcolm McLaren, John Lydon and the Ramones — but the band was decisive in infusing its raw, raging energy with a sense of ethical integrity and political commitment. The heart of “Joe Strummer” is the narrative of the band’s rise, triumph and eventual unraveling, a tale told by survivors, participants, hangers-on and fans and animated by performances that have lost little of their immediacy or force in the intervening years.
The usual rock-doc motifs are there: trouble with management; drug problems; tensions between Mr. Strummer and Mick Jones, the band’s other guitarist and creative force. Once the Clash has broken up, in the mid-1980s, there is a long denouement — for me, I guess it’s called adulthood — during which both Mr. Strummer’s career and Mr. Temple’s film lose a bit of steam. But the waning of punk’s heat leaves behind a surprising afterglow and allows you to appreciate Joe Strummer’s warmth.
The Future Is Unwritten
Opens today in New York and Los Angeles.
Directed by Julien Temple; director of photography, Ben Cole; edited by Mark Reynolds, Tobias Zaldua and Niven Howie; produced by Amanda Temple, Anna Campeau and Alan Moloney; released by IFC First Take. In Manhattan at the IFC Center, 323 Avenue of the Americas, at Third Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 124 minutes. This film is not rated.