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Film explores the good and bad of Joe Strummer

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In the late 1970s, Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols became the safety pin-pierced icons of British punk in the popular media. But for fans, the godfather was Joe Strummer, snarling away at the head of The Clash.

Strummer's voice and guitar helped define The Clash sound -- songs of protest and rage, about inequality and injustice.  They were the songs of disaffected youth living in Margaret Thatcher's Britain.

Julien Temple
Julian Temple first met Joe Strummer while he was filming the Sex Pistols. The two were to become good friends.
Image courtesy IFC Films

At the time Julian Temple was a film student, swept up in the excitement of the early punk rock scene. 

"I was filming with the Sex Pistols and saw The Clash, and became very excited about the idea of filming them as well," Temple says. "That's how I finally met Joe." 

It was Julian Temple who arranged the first studio recording for The Clash. 

"On the Sunday evening when we knew the gatekeeper was down at the pub, we smuggled the band's van into the film school and onto the old movie sound stage that was part of these old movie studios where film school was based.  That was the first time The Clash recorded anything in the studio," Temple says.

"There was a sense of wanting to heal some feelings that we had about Joe, because we never gave him a proper memorial, in terms of a concert or anything like that."

Temple captured Joe Strummer roaring his way through the vocal track of White Riot, the band's anthem of bored teen anger. It's a raw demonstration of Strummer's power as a performer. 

Temple and Strummer became friends. He says Strummer always had something interesting or challenging to say. It was a friendship that lasted for the rest of Strummer's life.

The Sex Pistols imploded after about a year, but The Clash, with Strummer at the forefront, quickly built an international audience, even breaking into the U.S. mainstream with Rock the Casbah.  

Temple says that while The Clash enjoyed the early flush of fame, it began wearing on the band, and especially Strummer. He wasn't a saint, and he rubbed a lot of people the wrong way over the years. But Temple says Strummer  remained idealistic.

"And I think that gave him a sense of only wanting to be famous because he had something he felt was important to say," says Temple. 

After 10 years it was The Clash's turn to implode, and Strummer drifted for a while. He was on his way back with his new band, the Mescalaros, when he died of a heart attack. Julian Temple, who is now a name in music and film,  says many people felt wounded by his death. 

"There was a sense of wanting to heal some feelings that we had about Joe, because we never gave him a proper memorial, in terms of a concert or anything like that," he says.

Bonfire
To gather interviews with family friends and fans, Julian Temple set up bonfires and invited people to talk about Joe Strummer.
Image courtesy IFC Films

Temple decided to make a film. He had footage from all through The Clash's career, but he needed to get people to look back and say what The Clash meant to them. 

To do that, he arranged bonfires and taped interviews as people sat around to reminisce and argue, something Strummer himself loved to do. 

What is amazing is who turned up. There are friends, family and people who attended the early concerts. There are also celebrities like Martin Scorcese, Johnny Depp and Bono of U2, whose first ever concert was seeing The Clash.  

"There was a violence in the air," Bono says. "I was terrified. I was excited, and rock and roll  was not entertainment in that moment. It was not a matter of life and death,  something much more serious." 

Everyone sits in the dark, their faces lit and sometimes obscured by the flames, talking about Joe Strummer. Temple doesn't name them, though. He says there are so many, it would be like reading a book. And he likes the egalitarianism, and the challenge to see if the audience can differentiate the aging stars from the ordinary people. 

He thinks Joe Strummer would have approved.