The Future is Unwritten

Showing in the IFI from 18 – 31 May, Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten is a documentary on the life of the iconic front man of The Clash.


Made by Julien Temple, an English director known for his counterculture subject matter, the film is a warts-and-all examination of Strummers life, alongside a glowing paean to a much beloved man who brought more than just music to peoples lives. 

Temple has been known for the use of animated scenes, documentary footage, home videos, concerts, photographs, and his own distinctive footage in his work since he made The Great Rock And Roll Swindle in 1980, a mockumentary about the Sex Pistols from the viewpoint of their manager Malcom McLaren. He also made The Filth and the Fury, documentaries on David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Glastonbury and less proudly, Earth Girls are Easy.

Temple's contacts with the rock and roll world are apparent in his latest movie. He was a friend of Strummer's and this allowed him to assemble a cast of stars, who are interviewed in the informal setting of a campfire party, in memory of Strummer's love of such parties in his later years. We hear stories and testimonials from Bono, Bobby Gillespie, Johnny Depp (in full Captain Jack Sparrow regalia), Flea, Matt Damon, John Cusack, numerous ex-girlfriends, Strummer's wife and children, and musicans who played with him throughout the years, most notably members of The Clash. All are filmed around their campfires in different cities around the world, where the rock star had friends.

The documentary goes through the early years as a diplomats son to Strummer's decision to “only follow music forever”. In the pursuit of his dream, throughout his life he would change musical direction, change his name, and change his outlook, ruthlessly dropping those he knew in his previous incarnations. We could have been left with a mawkish portrait without this examination of the darker part of Strummer's complex personality, but Temple does not shy away from the truth.

For all the glamorous talking heads, the music in the film is the real star. The rawness of the punk aesthetic formulated by Strummer and the Clash, with the influence of contemporaries like the Sex Pistols, is vividly portrayed, especially in the striking opening shot of Strummer laying down the vocals for White Riot. The Clash songs are played loud, as they are meant to be, and a recording of Strummer's BBC radio show where he showcased his favourite tunes from around the world, from all eras, shows his depth of knowledge and interest in the new and unusual.

In a Q&A session in the IFI, Temple says he made the film as “punk still has lessons that are useful”. It was also a way for friends of Strummer to move on after his sudden death in 2002 of a heart defect. Temple sees the story of the Clash as being a compelling tale, in which “Joe had to break up the Clash, but to do that he had to betray his friends”. He sees the life of Strummer as that of a philosopher, who lived by the rules of being yourself, being different.