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Originally published November 9, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 9, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Movie review

A fond, fulsome look at Joe Strummer

Anyone who attended the first Seattle concert appearance by the British band Clash (at the Paramount in 1979) will likely remember both...

Special to The Seattle Times


Movie review 4 stars

"Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten," a documentary with Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Topper Headon, Terry Chimes, Matt Dillon, Anthony Kiedis, Steve Jones, Jim Jarmusch, Johnny Depp. Directed by Julien Temple. 124 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (contains some swearing and a brief flash of nudity). Varsity showtimes.

Anyone who attended the first Seattle concert appearance by the British band Clash (at the Paramount in 1979) will likely remember both a remarkable performance by the premiere punk band of the era and a tense, onstage drama in which the group squared off with theater security over the latter's heavy-handed treatment of fans.

The situation got particularly edgy when Joe Strummer — guitarist, lead vocalist and the Clash's unofficial leader — ran backstage and re-emerged with a fire ax. Strummer intended to chop down a barrier separating the stage from the audience, but fan safety made him change his mind.

That unforgettable Seattle moment underscored the Clash's radical populism, thrillingly revisited in Julien Temple's bustling and soulful documentary "Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten."

Temple's film offers a rich, detailed portrait of a commanding but idealistic Strummer against the backdrop of the do-it-yourself punk ethos of the late '70s. But, more important, it features something exceedingly rare: a narrative about a prematurely dead rock innovator (Strummer passed away from a heart condition in 2002 at age 50) with a satisfying arc to the complete story of his artistry. Strummer, had he lived, probably had many good years ahead of him as a gifted musician of vision.

Temple clearly defines the guiding principles in his subject's creative life and grass-roots politics, showing us how Strummer's career-long search for original sounds, at their best, captured his essential drive for inclusiveness, a sense of community that extended to the whole world. His life might have been cut short, but Temple reveals its novelistic shape.

"The Future Is Unwritten" is the story of Strummer's pursuit of that musical goal and wholehearted embrace of the people/politics that went with it. From his early days playing rockabilly with fellow London squatters, through the incomparable Clash years, to a midlife passion for jamming around a campfire, he always wanted, the film tells us, the same thing. Whenever he drifted from it, he was lost and unhappy.

Temple ("Absolute Beginners") appropriately honors Strummer's memory by gathering people who knew him in an intimate setting around a fire by the Thames. His frenetic samplings of images and sounds from diverse, sometimes confusing sources has an anything-goes eclecticism that Strummer probably would have appreciated. "Joe Strummer" should be a lively, emotionally fulfilling experience for anyone who ever cared about rock 'n' roll.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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