Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten doesn't look much like the usual rock-star documentary of the "Behind the Music" model. Director Julien Temple crafts something of an Irish wake for the Clash's frontman, who justly called himself a "punk-rock warlord" and died in 2002 of a congenital heart defect.
In his later years, Strummer extolled the virtues of campfires as venues for fellowship and sharing ideas, so Temple films his present-day interviewees around open-air bonfires, as if we're part of an impromptu gathering in honor of Strummer. Via old interviews and audio clips from his BBC World Service radio show, Strummer feels almost like an invisible presence at your elbow.
At first sight, however, he looks more likely to knock your block off. A faded black-and-white close-up shows the brash young singer roaring the vocal track of the Clash's early hit "White Riot" with such intensity that it's a wonder the mic doesn't explode. Then the instruments come crashing in, and Temple shows a home-movie montage of Strummer as a lad romping in the back yard. It's an exuberant transition, although you seldom see Strummer that happy until near the film's end.
Temple's brilliant 2000 documentary, The Filth and Fury, presented a kind of collage of the do-it-yourself creativity and social-justice political movements that swirled around the Sex Pistols' emergence in 1970s England. Joe Strummer's content and style overlap a little, but focus more specifically on one man's art and personality. Temple doesn't always paint a flattering portrait. A hippie, busker and rockabilly musician, Joe Strummer joined the newly formed Clash and cut off his nonpunk friends with a severity one recalls as "Stalinist." Temple then shows clips of an old cartoon version of Animal Farm to highlight Strummer's ambition, and dovetail with a larger metaphor of Orwellian imagery that represents the oppression that Strummer always opposed.
Strummer admitted to having trouble reconciling punk's street-level sensibility with the group's mainstream success, and Temple juxtaposes early footage of the Clash playing "Career Opportunities" at a cramped pub with the same song at a huge stadium at the height of their popularity. During Strummer's "wilderness" years as a sometime actor, soundtrack composer and new father, The Future Is Unwritten loses urgency, lacking both hit songs and the punk movement as driving forces.
Perhaps as a democratic statement, Temple doesn't identify his interviewees, which seems unfair to the obscure friends and musicians, as opposed to instantly familiar but superfluous celebrities such as Johnny Depp. (Former drummer Topper Headon makes an especially candid, good-humored commentator.) Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten suggests that Strummer finally found satisfaction with his band the Mescaleros, even as it conveys the difficulty of recapturing musical lightning in a bottle.
The Pixar Story portrays another kind of artistic revolution, as the computer-animation studio Pixar profoundly changed the business and aesthetic of film cartooning. In sharp contrast to Temple's film, director Leslie Iwerks (granddaughter of animation pioneer Ub Iwerks) recounts the filmmakers' rise in a warm, conventional style that's ready-made for a future DVD package.
Nevertheless, The Pixar Story doesn't shy away from some of the creative clashes and enormous risks the high-tech art form endured in its formative stages. Pixar co-founder and Toy Story director John Lasseter serves as the film's main "hero" and spokesman for the art form. In one of the film's numerous interesting nuggets, two of Lasseter's student films, involving a lamp and a monster in a kid's room, respectively, eerily anticipate Pixar's mascot "Luxo" and one of its features, Monsters Inc.
Lasseter spent part of his early career at Disney developing a computer-animated adaptation of The Brave Little Toaster, only to be fired when his bosses learned computers wouldn't make the process faster or cheaper. That Lasseter has become the chief creative officer for both Pixar and Disney Animation Studios in 2006 offers a rare showbiz story in which the good guys actually seem to win.
For a review of the Future Is Unwritten soundtrack, see Media Mashups in the Vibes section.