Julien Temple's film Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten makes one thing abundantly clear: the late Clash frontman and all-around musical explorer liked people of all kinds. Indeed, restagings of the communal bonfires that Strummer organized for friends and strangers during the latter part of his life form the organizing visual trope of this amiable, at times self-consciously arty biopic, opening at the Orpheum Theatre on Jan. 18. At the bonfires, everyone from a sunglasses-obscured Bono to Happy Mondays' dazed-looking dancing fool Bez offer reminiscences of a troubled but creative soul who sought pop fame but was undone by it when it finally arrived.
At points, the bonfire bits serve to humanize what could have been just another flashy piece of hagiography, and for that Temple deserves praise. On the downside, they recur with such frequency that they often interrupt the flow of otherwise mesmerizing sequences that follow Strummer's early attraction to music and the rise and fall of the Clash in the 1970s and '80s. Temple has more success when he employs snippets of DJ patter from Strummer's eclectic radio show on the BBC World Service, "The Future Is Unwritten," as a unifying device.
Despite its flaws, the film is a must for fans of Strummer and punk rock in general. Intriguing archival footage abounds, including black-and-white film of early Clash rehearsals, clips of contentious press conferences and several takes of "White Riot," the Clash anthem that whipped up budding punk nihilists on both sides of the Atlantic. Temple's detailing of the band's steady disintegration in the face of drug abuse and interpersonal stress brought on by widespread popularity in America is also rife with fascinating insights into the limitations of pop iconoclasm. The film's most pathetic moment comes when the Clash's jettisoned drummer Topper Headon describes how he became a full-fledged junkie after watching the MTV-endorsed video of "Rock the Casbah," a song he'd largely written, carry the band to new heights in America.
Temple stumbles in depicting Strummer's life after the Clash. In part that's because, at least artistically, it was often fallow. But even when Strummer is clearly jazzed about new projects - e.g., his soundtrack for the movie Walker and his immersion in rave culture - Temple fails to capture that enthusiasm on screen.
Indeed, as Strummer moves through his 40s, finally dying of a heart attack in 2002, Temple relies more and more on clips of the staged campfires, which threaten to suck the energy right out of the film. Things pick up whenever a candid, haggard-looking Mick Jones shows up on screen, describing his enduring respect for his old bandmate. Rock 'n' roll remembrances rarely present rock stars as self-deprecating, and it's refreshing to find at least one aging rocker who has a mature perspective on the achievements and blunders of his youth. I expect Strummer himself would appreciate how honest his old mate is about their relationship and the personal dynamics of their history-making band.
Farewell to a hip-hop haven
The transformation of the King Club to a gay bar next month is a blow for local musicians of every stripe. But it's a double whammy for local hip-hop acts and fans, especially African American ones. The King Street club often hosted some of the most established names in Madison hip-hop, including DLO, OX, El Guante, God-Des, Rob DZ and many more.
In recent years, club booker Tristan Gallagher says he made a point of sticking with the music even as outbreaks of violence during and after DJ nights at the old Club Majestic made hip-hop followers persona non grata in the city's revitalized downtown.
"I got a bug up my ass a few years ago when this town started demonizing hip-hop out of fear and misunderstanding. It felt like a '50s rerun, only the devil's music wasn't rock 'n' roll, it was hip-hop. So I rather perversely set out to try to prove it could be done properly without violence or police presence."
Brody Rose (a.k.a. Bro DJ), founder of the local hip-hop clearinghouse Madisonhiphop.com, says the club's willingness to persevere with the music didn't go unnoticed. He notes that a who's who of local artists found their voices there, and that the club nurtured "everyone who had the honor to perform there."
Asked what it meant to the acts that played at the King Club, Rose simply says, "It was home!"
Rose has moved to Washington, D.C., but he still made periodic appearances at his old haunt. He says the loss of the venue to local artists is depressing, adding: "Madison has so much hip-hop talent. MCs, producers, DJs...but not a whole lot of places to showcase it. It's always been like that, sadly, probably always will."
Café Montmartre for sale
Another established downtown music venue is going through a transition. On Monday, Café Montmartre owners Craig and Kevin Spaulding announced that they had put the 15-year-old club/wine bar up for sale. Craig Spaulding says he has no control over what a new owner would do with the business, but he hopes Montmartre will continue to attract a "diverse selection of customers, sights and sounds."