The Future Is Unwritten: Joe Strummer


The Future Is Unwritten

A Film directed by Julien Temple,

Vertigo Films, in association with Film4, Parallel Films, and Nitrate Films.

Cinema Release May 2007,

DVD due September 2007.

One night a movie saved my life.  How?  By reminding me of what’s important, by re-kindling the excitement and motivation of a time I thought I’d lost, by re-connecting me to the guy I met over twenty years ago, who has been my husband for the last seventeen, and who accompanied me to Belfast QFT to watch it.  After witnessing the phenomenon that is this movie, I felt re-inspired, re-stimulated to look forward, speak up, move on regardless of obstacles, just because it’s worth it.  All those things and a whole lot more.  Mostly it made me glad to be human and to be alive.  Only the best movies do that, but this is a movie that does even more.  The Future Is Unwritten takes us on a journey of a life.  It is an account infused with vibrancy and musical sustenance from start to finish.  From the opening shot, we are treated to that voice — full of angst and defiance and sheer power to make us sit up, stand up, listen, and think.

Why does musical expression, especially in the art form that is the song, press every button that lets us feel life’s just bloody well worth living?  In the case of the subject of this movie, the answer to that question lies partly in the emotional, sensual, personal charisma of the singer-songwriter himself.  Lyrically too, Strummer’s songs apply an uncanny political and psycho-social insight, at the same time as they work hand in hand with an array of super-charged musical formations.  Incarnated in Joe Strummer, music reached a whole new dimension.  In the words of another modern musical guru, the song became “Like a Prayer.”

To draw a further legendary comparison, someone once referred to David Bowie as a “vortex,” on the basis of the magnetism generated by his limitless creativity.  Strummer was one, too, not least evident in the string of entourages he was able to attract, all of whom appear at various campfire sessions throughout the course of the movie, relating their experiences of Joe and the nature of their relationships with him.  In the main, he was a kind and stalwart friend and exciting companion, by all accounts.  Fraught with tension as some of them were, (for instance, Clash band members who were “sacked” one by one), overall, personal connections come across in the movie as having been highly valued, and most were restored in latter times.  Because of his brilliance and warmth, he is forgiven.

Following his emergence from “the wilderness years” to a renewed vigour and direction with The Mescaleros, the tragedy of Joe Strummer’s untimely death is rendered all the more poignant by an earlier snippet where he makes a rare reference to his late brother David, whose death by suicide had a major impact on John Mellor, as he was then.  As related in the movie, Joe told his friend that David would have liked where they were, at that time, in Grenada.  He might have wanted to stay alive if he had seen that place, Joe thought.  Joe himself felt good to be alive there.  Those little clues suggest that the pain and grief over a brother lost to suicide were abhorrently deep, but found expression and release in the work — the songs, the lyrics, the music, the creation of personas.  No one can imagine the horror of a sibling lost in that way, and perhaps, as we witness in the film, one’s life becomes a series of searches for meaning and succour, even more so than the general struggle that is the human condition for us all.

The Clash in Belfast city centre, late 1977, beside an army “pig,” a colloquial term for the armoured vehicle, presumably based on the appearance of its large “snout-like” front.

Of course that is one of the things that made him so appealing.  Ok, he was the son of a diplomat, spent his school years at a private boarding school — not your usual working-class hero.  But he suffered all the same, and he recognised and addressed the suffering of others.  Not only did he see their plight but, through his music, lyrics and popularity, Joe Strummer pricked the consciences of the world.  He also made enemies, not least of whom arose in my own home town of Belfast, where in October 1977, The Clash were prevented from playing on the basis of “a combination of big business insurance moguls and local bureaucratic bullshit”.1

The silver lining, as remarked upon by music journalist Gavin Martin2, came in the form of a youth body unified in protest at the authorities, rather than in sectarian mode at each other.  This leads me to suggest that more future attention be paid to one of the other main threads pulled all the way through the film.  That is, to continue to address the whole place of punk rock within the history of counter-cultural movements and to identify the social pressures operating in Britain and Ireland at that time, forces that provided the conditions out of which punk rock would grow.

Whilst not within the scope of this short piece, we can at least say that anti-establishment voices arise in all societies and at all times, though vary in terms of the degree to which their expressions can be overt and literal, as opposed to veiled and symbolic.  Every human carries an ambivalent attitude towards established authority.  On the one hand, we need social cohesion for our emotional security and development; on the other hand, we reject restrictive cultural codes when they impinge upon our needs for creative expression and individuality.  Paradoxical creatures, we humans.  Generally, it is the youth who adopt and express the most extreme anti-authoritarian attitudes, most of whom burn it out of their system by the time they are wage-earning, mortgage-paying adults.  But for some the fire stays lit and Strummer was one of those who kept the torch of questioning and challenge alight.

Now it is time for my confession.  I was a late starter where Clash music and Joe Strummer are concerned.  Though secretly following David Bowie and Marc Bolan in my youth, hiding the LPs in my friend’s house and school locker, the possibility of being found out as an admirer of punk was just too scary.  Yes, I was a coward and as such, locked the closet until circumstances were more favourable.  That turn came about in the mid-eighties when, free from parental control, I met Fintan McDonnell and fell for him hook, line, and sinker.  I won’t bore you with the details of my infatuation, but suffice to say he was a seasoned punk whose favourite band was, you’ve guessed it, The Clash.  He moved on into blues; meanwhile I enjoyed his punk music archive.  As recently as a few years ago, I was once more bowled over by London Calling, when I decided to play it in the car on a school pick-up.  Overwhelmed is an understatement.  Volume and velocity, emotional depth and personal connecting, lyrical insight and wit, the soulful yet grinding energy of the music — I was sold.  So was my seven year old daughter!

Exactly the same impact takes place on viewing the recent film.  From the first seconds of the movie, Strummer’s voice pierces your body-mind like a heat-seeking missile. Your senses explode in the midst of the voice, that voice — what he had to say and how he said it — the right to expressive freedom; to spaces for alterity; to expect flexible boundaries; the challenging of hypocrisy, deprivation, abuse, and neglect.  The film is gripping because he was.  Surpassing even the Beat poets of the sixties counter-culture, Strummer was a Bard who articulated the voices of the punk generation and beyond.  He stripped away pretence and hypocrisy and attempted to replace them with ideas of a more visceral and immediate humanity.  Some people just spin so fast, they set up such a magnetic draw, we can’t help but listen, watch, follow, emulate.  After watching, or rather experiencing this movie, I felt as if I had been caught up in a mystical, spiritual event.  For the few split seconds between the movie ending with Strummer’s invocation to humanity, and the spontaneous yet reverential applause that ensued, you could have heard a pin drop.  It was, indeed, like a prayer — a ceremonial quality infused the atmosphere, a non-verbal acknowledgement that we in that theatre had witnessed the life and work of one extraordinary human.  Joe Strummer is dead, but his message lives on.  Let’s not ever forget either, encapsulated in his final words in the movie.

People can change anything they want to,

And that means everything. . . .

. . . take their humanity back into the centre of the ring,

And follow that for a time, you know?

Think on that.

Without people, you’re nothing.

1  NME, 21 October 1978, cited in Black Market Clash

2  Gavin Martin “Joe Strummer Is Dead; Long Live the Clash!” CounterPunch 24 December 2002,

Roberta McDonnell lives in Belfast.

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