Sunday, July 13, 2008

The only band that matters

This week I was able to see The Future is Unwritten, the documentary film about the late Clash front man Joe Strummer. During my formative years, I was fortunate to have a pen-pal from Holland (hey, Rinus!) who sent me tapes of The Clash, U2, Fischer-Z and The Jam when my classmates were listening to the likes of Pat Benatar and REO Speedwagon. I can still remember the jaw-dropping impact of hearing The Clampdown for the first time. I immediately became a life-long fan of the Clash and started taking an interest in far-flung places like Chile and Nicaragua. The musical team of Strummer and Jones must surely be one of the greatest creative forces of all time. When Joe Strummer died suddenly on December 22, 2002, I was shocked and saddened. Although I had been and remain a huge fan, I really didn't know much about his life or his career after the Clash.

The Future is Unwritten features numerous people who knew Joe Strummer throughout his life reminiscing about him and his place in musical history. As other reviewers have commented, the lack of identification of the people who are speaking is annoying. Other than immediately recognizable people such as Johnny Depp, Matt Dillon and Steve Buscemi, the identities of the speakers and their relationships to Strummer are often not clear.

Former bandmates Mick Jones, Topper Headon and Terry Chimes are all featured, although the still gorgeous Paul Simonon didn't take part in the project. (An aside: Oh for an extra £30,000 to buy one of Simonon's beautiful Thames paintings!) The first part of the film is a strange whirl of short comments, still photographs and cartoons. If you didn't have ADHD before you watched this, I had the feeling it might induce the condition. The second part of the film slowed down and featured more people sitting around campfires (apparently a passion of Strummer's) and reminiscing.

Strummer ultimately comes off as an extremely conflicted individual. Someone who worked very hard for musical success, but felt guilty for abandoning his "everyman" roots. After the break-up of the Clash (blamed variously on the evil machinations of former manager Bernie Rhodes, on the stress of non-stop touring, and on Mick Jones' out-of-control rock-star behavior), he was still under contract to the record company and felt constricted musically and creatively. He had many years when he dabbled in acting and writing film soundtracks, and eventually he did release more albums. He was never able to recapture the success of the Clash, however.

I was most interested in the clips featuring Clash drummer Topper Headon. He came off as the most sympathetic and human character from the group. His hurt and bewilderment at being dismissed from the group (for drug problems) is still palpable nearly 25 years after the fact. I was also fascinated to hear his description of how he came up with the music for "Rock the Casbah", dabbling in the studio when the other members of the group were chronically in-fighting.

Overall, it was a very sympathetic and moving portrait of one of the great influences from my teenage years. The Clash were moving in very experimental and diffuse directions by the time they split up, but their songs remain very timely and important, today more than ever. We still need Joe Strummer's voice in the world, and it is a terrible tragedy that it was silenced so soon.

Favorite Joe quote from the film: "I think it says in the Bible, there's a time to dance to techno, and there's a time not to."

Final Verdict for The Future is Unwritten: Four Gherkins, for wonderful, timeless footage of The Clash

0 comments:

Post a Comment