Sundance calling: Clash frontman examined
January 20, 2007
On the eve of the Sundance Film Festival, Brian Richards, the owner of Orion’s Music Shop, opens a shipment of discs at his independent CD store. Buried inside is a copy of "Rock Art and the X-Ray Style."
It is a disc that few people likely have heard, but the artist, four years after his death from a heart defect that he was born with, remains regarded as one of rock ‘n’ roll’s seminal figures and is the subject of a buzz-generating Sundance documentary.
Richards says people continue to buy the catalog of Joe Strummer, who fronted The Clash and later The Mescaleros, the band that put out "Rock Art." Other Clash merchandise like posters and T-shirts still draws some interest at Orion’s.
"I would say they’re one of the very consistent-selling punk bands. I may not sell a huge amount of them but they’re always selling," Richards says. "They were able to blend a lot of styles of music. They had a huge reggae influence, world music."
British filmmaker Julien Temple, a Sundance veteran, brings his "Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten" to the 2007 festival, another in a list of Sundance documentaries that have studied some of rock’s potent acts, Lou Reed and The Sex Pistols included.
The film, with four scheduled showings, including its world premier on Saturday, traces Strummer from a privileged upbringing as a diplomat’s son to his frontman duties for The Clash, an act renowned for activist lyrics, melding of musical styles and blistering concerts.
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"London Calling," the band’s 1980 release, remains one of rock’s standards and its first record, "The Clash," is regarded as one of the genre’s best debuts.
"They made people think as well as rocking their socks off," says Temple, a 52-year-old Londoner who has previously brought two other rock documentaries to Sundance.
Temple had rare access to Strummer and The Clash, meeting and beginning to film them in 1976, before the band signed a record deal. The early performances, Temple recalls, displayed the "pure, visceral excitement of punk rock."
"I was so excited by them. I saw the future," the filmmaker says. "There was definitely something burning white hot."
Strummer was the band’s singer, rhythm guitarist and chief lyricist, helping pen the words to "London Calling," The Clash’s most famous song.
Temple relies on interviews and archival footage in "The Future Is Unwritten," providing comments from Strummer and testimony from followers like Bono and The Edge from U2.
Strummer grew up abroad, following his father on diplomatic assignments, was a hippie in the late 1960s and, before The Clash, tried life as a hobo.
"Joe was built on contradiction," Temple says. "He did turn his back on the lifestyle he grew up in."
That influenced Strummer as he began performing, says Craig Inciardi, the associate curator for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. The hall is hosting a 2,000-square-foot special exhibit about The Clash, called Revolution Rock, after one of the band’s songs, through the spring.
"He wasn’t class-conscious. He was willing to circulate and meet people and listen to music in clubs where it wasn’t necessarily fashionable for people such as himself," Inciardi says.
Inciardi praises Strummer’s songs about racism and poverty, mentioning that the exhibit includes his hand-written lyrics to "Lost in the Supermarket," a Clash song about social class. The hall inducted the band in 2003, its first year of eligibility.
"He’s certainly one of the most talented singer-songwriters in the rock era," Inciardi says.
The Clash disbanded in the mid-1980s, after following "London Calling" with records like the sprawling, 36-song "Sandinista!" and "Combat Rock," which produced the hits "Rock the Casbah," one of Temple’s favorite Clash songs, and "Should I Stay or Should I Go."
For Strummer, though, the band’s newer material was less enticing, Temple says, explaining the last days of The Clash. It took Strummer years afterward to rework himself as a musician, he says.
"Joe had a real problem with the ride The Clash went on," Temple says. "They didn’t want to be the commercial, clichéd rock stars."
"Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten" is scheduled to premier Jan. 20 at 9 p.m. at Holiday Village Cinema. Other screenings are scheduled Jan. 21 at Broadway Centre Cinemas in Salt Lake City, Jan. 22 at Holiday Village and Jan. 23 at Holiday Village.
All screenings are sold out. Tickets may be available at the Sundance box office at the Gateway Center in Old Town at the start of each day the film shows. They also may be available in wait-list lines at the theaters before the showings.