Jim Shelley on why the Clash frontman was no average Joe
Saturday May 5, 2007
*Never meet your heroes, people say. Clash frontman and "punk rock warlord" Joe Strummer spent the best part of 25 years trying not to disappoint his fans' expectations and his own.
We see three different Strummers in Julien Temple's biopic, The Future Is Unwritten.
First there is Joseph Mellor, the son of an Indian diplomat and Scottish mother who spent half his childhood discovering a love of music travelling to Malawi, Mexico City and Iran, and half at boarding school in Surrey, nurturing an antipathy towards authority that would last a lifetime.
Next, there is the legendary icon that, as the engine behind the Clash, drove the band from the raging vitriol of White Riot to the complacency of the American Top 10 via arguably the greatest record of the the period in London Calling.
Finally, there is the man who had to live with the other two - the husband and father who after the Clash spent years in an artistic wilderness, burdened by both his success and its demise, before finally rediscovering his love of music via techno, Glastonbury, and his new band, the Mescaleros.
Ironically, the section that looks at the inspirational, incendiary force that was the Clash's career is the least fascinating, having been remembered more poignantly in Don Letts' brilliant Westway To The World.
Temple does document the way Strummer jettisoned his closest friends when he defected from London rockers the 10-ers to "defect" to punk phenomena the Clash, with what Strummer called "virtually Stalinist" ruthlessness.
Temple's film - a characteristic collage of fabulous unseen rehearsal film, archive footage and moving interviews with friends - is more successful as a portrait of the complexities of the man.
Temple's eccentric style can get in the way. (Mention of Strummer's father being posted to Turkey is met with the refrain from a Fry's Turkish delight advert; the end of the 101-ers is illustrated with a house being struck by a wrecking ball.) But Strummer's inherent cool and charisma, his sheer heart, are as magnetic as ever.
Famous fans such as Bono, Johnny Depp, and John Cusack pay homage but add little. It's Strummer's friends who provide insights into the suicide of his brother, his turbulent relationship with Jones, and the beliefs that made him one of the great romantic rebels of the 20th century.
The idealism that drove him destroyed not just the Clash but Strummer too for a while. He was tormented by his part in unseating the band's first drummer Topper Headon, then Jones, then finally the band itself.
Typically, Strummer and Jones were reunited just before Strummer's death not for a greatest hits tour or the Hall of Fame but for a benefit gig for London firemen.
Always uncomfortable as a spokesman for a generation, towards the end of what is a fragmented but quietly comprehensive portrait, Strummer reflects, "I don't have any message... except 'don't forget you're alive'." A genuine hero.