The punk era’s greatest avatar for music’s personally and politically transformative power is now the subject of a greatest-hits doc unlikely to alter anybody’s thinking about anything. Julian Temple’s Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten is gathered ‘round campfire-side interviews conducted with the self-described “Punk Rock Warlord”’s ragged army (but not, curiously, Paul Simonon): the flickering spirit of community invokes the “Strummerville” campfires Joe originated, late in his too-short life, at the Glastonbury Festival, where he and Temple rekindled their friendship. (When London was burning, Temple was in a different camp, flying to Rio with great rock and roll swindlers Steve Jones and Paul Cook). Nice of Temple to avow that The Clash wasn’t the only band that mattered to Strummer’s legacy, but still, he skims on context. Audience familiarity is the assumption (watching the Clash ambivalently combat-rocking Shea Stadium in ’82, it helps to know that they were opening for the long since sold-out Who, the better to connect the dots to Strummer’s sacking of big audio guitarist Mick Jones), and yet Temple squanders his post-message board platform on dial-a-celebrity testimonials from Bono and Johnny Depp, and sub-VH1 Social Context montage.
Yet Unwritten’s contribution to the record is indelible: here’s all this archival material in one place, Strummer’s phoenixlike appetite for re-creation evident in his doodles, postcards, home videos and TV appearances — where he sports, variously, a Donovan shag, rockabilly forelock, Springsteen sideburns, Rotten dye job, Orange County mohawk — and his BBC radio show, providing soundtrack cuts from Tim Hardin to Dr. Alimantado to Alabama 3. You can see why someone would make such a moony doc on this (multi) culture warrior — and why it’d be so inadequate.