Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten opens with startling black-and-white footage of Joe Strummer in the studio, singing ”White Riot.” We don’t hear any music, just his voice — that strangled lumpen rasp, all ferocity and barbed wire, not so much singing as spitting the lyrics ( ”Whah! Riot! I wanna riot! Whah! Riot! A riot umah own!”). Then the sound of the Clash crashes in behind it, and you realize with a shudder that you haven’t in a long time heard anything like this rock & roll earthquake. As the song plays, we see footage of the young Joe, the diplomat’s son who grew up to do more than just attack ”authority” — he would try to remake the world, declaring that the real authority was you.
The Future Is Unwritten captures the Joe Strummer who, in the late 1970s, just about firebombed the rock establishment with his fury. On stage, with his sideburns and rockabilly pompadour, which hung down into an early-’60s Brylcreem curl, he was like a scrawny, punk-Marxist James Dean; along with the other lean and hungry members of the Clash, he made rock-as-activism seem sexy. Directed by Julien Temple, The Future Is Unwritten is styled as a companion piece to Temple’s Sex Pistols documentary, The Filth and the Fury (2000), but it lacks that film’s blistering sweep. This one, though, has an intimacy that’s rare to encounter in rock docs. It’s full of amazing home-movie footage — Joe as a roots-rock London squatter, figuring out his image before punk hit; Joe jamming with the Clash for virtually the first time; Joe partying backstage, puking out a window, or ripping into a journalist for not being ”serious.”
In that tantrum, you see what was great about Strummer and also what, at times, was annoying — the righteousness that could make rock & roll seem like homework. (I still cringe when I think of my lefty college pal nattering about ”the only band that matters.”) A crusader for truth, he wasn’t above bedding his bandmates’ girlfriends; his post-Clash career, in which he led the party band the Mescaleros, shows the man growing up, but it was also meandering and a little sad. He had already given everything he had. The Future Is Unwritten made me long for the era when a rock star could burn — and even burn out — this brightly. B+