Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, a recently-released film about the Clash front man who died in 2002, opens with a young and fierce looking Strummer in the recording studio. Headphones on, he starts spitting out the lyrics to White Riot: “An’ everybody’s doing / just what they’re told to / an’ nobody wants / to go to jail! / white riot – I wanna riot! / white riot – a riot of our own!” After a few verses acapella, the soundtrack slams in. The effect is jarring and exhilarating, kind of like hearing the Clash for the very first time.
At the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two summers ago, I saw a play called Being Joe Strummer. The play tells the story of two friends growing up together, being politicized by anti-fascist struggles, the rise of Thatcherism, and most of all, by The Clash. As they get older, they, like all of us, face many different pulls – towards a “secure” life, “realistic” politics and the like. But Joe Strummer’s music is always there, acting as a powerful “bullshit detector” – buzzing them warnings about the lies they tell themselves to make their lives a little easier.
It’s this kind of influence that makes The Future is Unwritten a gotta-see for all of Joe’s fans. As the film shows, Strummer knew that to change the world, you had to live in it and engage with it, even if this meant a loss of some mythical “purity.” Of course this engagement is fraught with dangers and pitfalls – As the man himself used to warn us, “he who fucks nuns will later join the church.”
Recounting how the Clash eventually collapsed, sending Strummer into a self-described “wilderness period” before his redemptive return near the end of his life with the Mescalaros, The Future is Unwritten is a loving tribute to a man for whom art had to mean something, in this world, despite the messiness involved.