We rented "The Future is Unwritten," a biopic about the great Joe Strummer, and watched it tonight. I fired up the big reactor pile audio system I have attached to the TV for the event. Strummer's story should be experienced loud. Very loud. Kick out the jams (expletive reluctantly deleted)!
The film features disarming drawings by the man himself which somebody animated in a simple, Web GIF animation way, and they were just about perfect. I saw a documentary about Henry Darger a couple of years ago that used an analogous animation technique with his work. But the Darger film was a mistake. Nothing was added to old Darger's hallucinatory visions of child hell by making the odd Vivian girl twitch and wink. A punk rocker's pictures by their nature must twitch and wink. Twitching and winking in hell is just about the whole point.
The Strummer film contains snippets of early bands like the Vultures and most especially the 101ers. But of course it's the Clash that makes the story compelling. The film begins with some decidedly not ironic footage of Strummer laying on the voice track of "White Riot" in the studio. He's mesmerizing. Like the opening sequence of Greil Marcus' Lipstick Traces which describes the last Sex Pistols' concert with the incredulous assertion "This is really happening." Incredulous because the writer truly can't believe what he is reporting. Strummer's intensity and passion are bare. There is no "you've been cheated" moment in anything that follows.
"London Calling" has been used to sell Jaguar automobiles in recent times, but once it was a raging anthem of fierce resistance against any such shit. So has punk rock's power to shock been domesticated. The Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop" sells cell phone contracts and Iggy Pop's drummer entices us to take a Caribbean cruise. The movie follows approximately the same progression from clanging garage band through modest commercial success to stadium rocker status and the inevitable disillusionment of becoming only another part of what the Situationist International used to call the Spectacle.
Spectacle be damned. Strummer remains a man who meant it when he made those harsh noises some may call singing. It was more and less than a commodity he offered his audience.
As Strummer's (and the Clash's) fame grows during the movie, the talking heads commenting on the story get more famous. Early on, it's all ex girlfriends and former bandmates. But soon enough John Cusack, Jim Jarmusch, Martin Scorsese even Johnny Depp offer their stellar judgments on Strummer's cultural bona fides. Who could argue with that lineup? Okay I can argue with Johnny Depp sittin' by a camp fire at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, but who's counting shit like that?
The emergence of the Mescaleros, Strummer's last real band, is a treat for all of us Joe fans. And throughout it all we are treated to snippets of Joe's regular BBC radio show of world music which ranged from Detriot's MC5 to Elvis (on crawfish) to the Clash and the Mescaleros.
Strummer's voiceover as the film comes to an end urges us all to remember that we are all just people and we can change things. People made it so; people can make it not so.
Anybody want to figure out why I persist in cultural work like painting and art criticism? See this movie. If you don't, fuck off.