Joe Strummer Calling: Know Your Rights!

A film about the Clash frontman includes all the little people that Strummer befriended, inspired, and pissed off along the way.


Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, an IFC First Cut release, 2007. 124 minutes.

It’s not unsettling to learn that world-renowned punk rocker and Clash front man Joe Strummer was sort of a hippie at heart. It’s actually endearing.

Julien Temple’s 2007 documentary, Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, illuminates this fact by highlighting a small but meaningful piece of Strummer’s personality: the guy loved campfires. He liked to sit by them, surrounded by family and friends, to talk, tell stories, sing, play music, and to think long and hard about what it all means. Just before his death on December 22, 2002 (of an undiagnosed congenital heart defect), Strummer sent out hand-painted Christmas cards that showed campfires set up along the banks of a winding river, symbolically connecting all of his loved ones for one last fireside hootenanny.

Temple was no doubt the first in line to make this film. The Sex Pistols used to show his gritty punk film Number One at their gigs; he went on to make The Great Rock and Roll Swindle in 1979, and in 2000 he earned more street cred for releasing The Filth and the Fury, a documentary about the Sex Pistols told from the band’s point of view. Temple’s version of Strummer’s life is told through a series of testimonies from musicians, artists, and friends, as related while sitting by a fire on a beach (yes, a little staged and kind of cheesy, but it works).

Former bandmates, members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, fans John Cusack and Johnny Depp, and former girlfriends and drinking buddies show up for the party. While Chili Peppers bassist Flea and Depp romanticize Strummer and the blue-collar, social justice issues he stood for, Clash drummer Topper Headon can’t get over how Strummer thought nothing of sleeping with his girlfriend, and complains that Strummer wasn’t there for him when he became addicted to heroin. The film also mixes in a vast amount of footage of Strummer as a child, teen, and eventually as the singer and rhythm guitarist for the best-known band to come out of England’s punk rock scene in the late 1970s.

Born John Graham Mellor in Turkey (his father was a diplomat in the British foreign service), Strummer (his eventual chosen stage name because that’s what you do with a guitar) grew up globetrotting with his family to live in places like Cairo, Mexico City and Bonn. His friends testify that his exposure to these locales and his father’s involvement in politics greatly influenced Strummer’s evolution as a musician with a message. But it was the anti-authoritarianism of punk rock that seems to have opened the floodgates for Strummer to speak his mind freely onstage and off. Inspired by Strummer, his friends in 2002 launched Strummerville, a charity that provides performance opportunities for aspiring young musicians.

I came away from Temple’s film with a new appreciation for Strummer. Although he comes across sometimes as self-absorbed and flakey (in one scene, he skips town the day he’s supposed to meet with record producers to discuss his long-awaited solo album) and opportunistic (he ditched his friends in a squatter’s house to become a punk rocker and join the Clash), Strummer is also consistently provocative, brash, and enthusiastic. He seems to have genuinely believed that political messages such as his call to “Know your rights” had a legitimate place in a rock song. Anyone—a hippie or a punk rocker—can sing flippant lyrics about the politics of the day, but when those lyrics still resonate with a clear sense of urgency 30 years later, the music’s worth listening to.

MORE HARD-HITTING JOURNALISM

In 2014, before Donald Trump announced his run for president, we knew we had to do something different to address the fundamental challenge facing journalism: how hard-hitting reporting that can hold the powerful accountable can survive as the bottom falls out of the news business.

Being a nonprofit, we started planning The Moment for Mother Jones, a special campaign to raise $25 million for key investments to make Mother Jones the strongest watchdog it can be. Five years later, readers have stepped up and contributed an astonishing $23 million in gifts and future pledges. This is an incredible statement from the Mother Jones community in the face of huge threats—both economic and political—against the free press.

Read more about The Moment and see what we've been able to accomplish thanks to readers' incredible generosity so far, and please join them today. Your gift will be matched dollar for dollar, up to $500,000 total, during this critical moment for journalism.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.