Despite having been a fan of The Clash since I was twelve I was wary of Julien Temple's documentary on the late Joe Strummer, mainly because rockumentaries are too often unilluminating elegies that rarely distance their human subjects from the icons that they became. The tendency of rock fans and 'critics' to take popular music a bit too seriously is also irritating. Things did not look too good when a friend of mine, who had seen it a couple of months ago and who is a Clash fan since the first album came out when he was sixteen, said that he hated Temple's film so much that not since Oliver Stone's The Doors did he await the demise of the hero with such relish.
Temple though is a capable director of music films, even if there have been a few duds along the way, such as Absolute Beginners. His two films on the Sex Pistols The Great Rock 'n Roll Swindle and The Filth and the Fury are riotously enjoyable and the opening hour of the Strummer film is amusingly interspersed - in Michael Moore fashion - with footage from Lindsay Anderson's If..., the animated film version of Animal Farm and the 1950s BBC production of 1984, with Peter Cushing as Winston Smith. While Temple's editing is none-too-subtle the choice of Orwell is shrewd as The Clash were a band whose intelligent and quite often pragmatic parsing of political views was very much in the tradition of the independent Left to which Orwell belonged. The Clash were to the forefront of the struggle against the National Front, and as Roland Gift of Fine Young Cannibals points out in the film, they opened punk up to young black British people, with their appropriation of reggae, dub and soul, and later hip-hop, which they did before rap and hip-hop became mainstream. The Clash however also had a clear-sighted view of racial politics and as tracks such as 'White Riot', 'White Man in Hammersmith Palais' and 'Safe European Home' attest, they were never naive enough to believe that reality reflected their own admirable ideals.
Testimonies are offered by people that knew Strummer from an early age such as his relatives and his schoolmates, and by collaborators from the Clash years and the long difficult times that followed. There are also a number of celebrity fans on hand. Some of the interviewees are spot-on, such as Zander Schloss, Jim Jarmusch, Don Letts, Bobby Gillespie and Jesús Aría, a Spanish friend of Strummer's. Others are balefully inane, such as John Cusack, Johnny Depp and Bono, all of whom deliver their peroration with the flatulent gravitas of a South Bank Show interview. The tone is naturally respectful but the more difficult sides of Strummer's character, particularly his avowed Stalinist single-mindedness and his tendency to sleep with his friend's girlfriends, are also included. Where the film scores best is its treatment of the barren years in the late 80s and early 90s when Strummer was adrift and wandering in a creative wilderness. The fact that someone as previously successful as Strummer could have suffered from such a lack of confidence is salutary and makes his comeback when he made a number of fine albums with the Mescaleros in the years before his death all the more remarkable.
There are a number of potential interviewees surprisingly missing, especially Paul Simenon, who, with his successful painting career and return to music with The Good, the Bad and the Queen, could not be considered media-shy. Also absent are Alex Cox, with whom Strummer worked a lot in the years after The Clash, and the Pogues, who can be credited with kick-starting Strummer's drive when they hired him to stand in for the sacked Shane McGowan on tour in 1991.
There are many cynics, myself included, that have sneered at the fashionable lefty that the public-school-educated John Mellor became (I used to refer to him as 'Joe Slummer'), but the film refutes this and the ultimate stamp of magnanimous approval is provided by the hard-as-nails working-class Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols who says that there was no bullshit about Strummer. Instead we see a man who devoted absurd amounts of time to his fans, had a heartening appetite for seeking out new music from anywhere in the whole world, and who was sickened to hear that, during the first Gulf War, American bombs dropped on Baghdad were daubed with the slogan 'Rock the Casbah'. The fact that Strummer and Mick Jones reunited for the only time, not for a corporate tour that might have made them millions, but for a benefit for striking London firemen in 2002, says everything about a man who had his priorities right. This is one reverential rockumentary that is worth watching. Here's the trailer: