Julien Temple made a name for himself over 25 years ago with a trailblazing documentary on The Sex Pistols. Now he’s making a name all over again with an acclaimed documentary on the Pistols’ great rival, Joe Strummer of The Clash. Donald Clarke escorts t
FOLLOWING a public screening of Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, Julien Temple’s excellent new documentary on one of the founding fathers of punk, I escort the director onstage for a chat about the film and related issues. We touch upon his experiences working with The Sex Pistols on The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle. We muse upon the lasting impact of punk.
“Punk changed everything and nothing,” Temple says. “It ended the unfinished work of the Sixties. It put the 1960s out of its misery. We suddenly realised you didn’t have to wait until you’re 60 to make a film. You can just stand up and shout what you believe in.”
Throughout the conversation, Temple, now 53, remains coolly polite, but, as the minutes pass, a certain flintiness creeps into his responses. Eventually, electing to dispense with me altogether, he turns his attention to the audience: “Let’s have some sensible questions.”
Be careful what you wish for. The first person to grab the microphone launches into a bitter rant detailing his disdain for Strummer’s music and his belief that the late Clash frontman was “a drug addict” and “80 per cent idiot”. Temple, who knew Strummer for over a quarter of a century, remains impassive.
“Oh that’s a very good question,” he eventually says. “Yes. That’s a very good question indeed. Well done. I totally agree with that.”
That combination of patrician disdain and withering sarcasm must have come in handy during the high summer of punk. Like Joe Strummer, whose father was a diplomat, Julien Temple, a Cambridge graduate raised by posh Communists, was an unlikely recruit to the movement that made brilliant, life-changing art out of street trash and aggressive expectoration.
Indeed, Temple’s parents banned popular culture from the house. There was no television in the home. He had barely seen a movie before he went to college. At Cam- bridge he developed a passion for the films of Jean Vigo, began listening to The Kinks and started growing his hair. By the time Temple made his way to art school he looked dangerously like a hippie.
“The arrival of Roxy Music was the point I cut my hair,” Temple, perfectly charming when encountered alone, tells me after we escape the cinema. “They were friends of the artist in residence at the art college I attended. Syd Barrett was there as well. It was a very exciting time.”
Temple first encountered Strummer when both men were squatting in west London during the mid-1970s. At this point, Joe was still hanging onto aspects of hippie culture while the future film-maker had advanced into the bolder world of glam rock. Then, a revelation. While strolling around the East End one morning, Julien heard snatches of the tremendous clamour the world would come to recognise as The Sex Pistols.
“I first saw them rehearse in 1975,” he says. “It was a Sunday afternoon and I suddenly heard this band playing a Small Faces song. You didn’t hear that sort of music so much in those days. So, like Alice in Wonderland, I followed this noise to a warehouse, opened the door and there they were. Instant enlightenment.”
As punk began to take off, Temple was faced with a dilemma. Relations between the Pistols and The Clash were famously hostile, and it didn’t seem possible to remain cosy with both camps. Though Julien filmed some early Clash gigs (the footage appears in The Future Is Unwritten), he was ultimately forced to wave goodbye to his chum and get aboard the Pistols express.
Initially a buffer between Johnny Rotten and Malcolm McLaren, the Pistols’ Machiavellian manager, Temple was drafted in to direct The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle, a surreal epic detailing the rise and fall of the band, when first choice Russ Meyer turned the project down. By the time of the film’s release in 1980, Rotten – now John Lydon again – was barely talking to McLaren. Once again Julien had to decide which side he was on.
“In the end, Malcolm did it for me,” he says. “He said he had been speaking to my teachers in film school and they all said I was shit. What the fuck did they know? It wasn’t a very punk think to say: ‘I’ve been talking to your teachers’. Eventually I was taken back as a slave. But then the receivers came in and kicked me out of the editing suite. So we finished it elsewhere and had a laugh making fun of Malcolm at the end of the film.”
Lydon, who remains on good terms with Temple, was happy to contribute to The Filth and the Fury, Temple’s 2000 examination of the Pistols’ career, but McLaren is only seen in archive footage. Have they never made up? “No. I remember once coming across him running for the same plane as me. But no. We haven’t made up. He is not the easiest guy. There is no loyalty there.”
After Swindle, Temple had a difficult time of it. Absolute Beginners, his flawed, though fascinating, musical adaptation of Colin MacInnes’s cult novel of London in the 1950s, is often cited as the film that annihilated the British film industry (again). Following that picture’s financial meltdown in 1986, he travelled to Hollywood where he made the – let’s be kind – fitful Earth Girls Are Easy, starring Geena Davis.
Called up too soon: The late Joe Strummer