Welcome to the Third World, American-style. In rusty, low-rise Queens, only a few miles from the cosmopolitan Manhattan of countless movies, we meet 12-year-old Ale (Alejandro Polanco), a wiry kid who hardly fills out his jeans but is already out on his own, hustling hard. He works long days in a grimy body shop and spends his spare hours peddling candy and bootleg DVDs before he crashes each night in a plywood cubicle above the service bays. There are no parents or grandparents in the picture, but no clue as to whether they’re dead or just gone, because there’s no back story in director/co-writer Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop. Ale’s solitary, hard-knock existence in this dirty, scuffling place is a simple fact of life, at least for him. Ale is so self-contained and serious in the initial reel or two that it almost becomes possible to forget that he’s hardly even hit puberty. But one day his older sister Isamar (Isamar Gonzales, a Latino Scarlett Johanssen) shows up from another borough: Cue boyish exuberance. She moves into his room and her presence motivates him to move forward with his own American dream in the form of a busted-ass taco truck. While Ale’s obviously happy to have his big sister around, however, she soon gives him even more to worry about.
There are plenty of points at which you might think you see something coming: a plot turn that will play out a certain way, a character who is sure to be bad news, a confrontation bound to explode. Chop Shop wrongfoots such Hollywood-programmed expectations at every turn. Bahrani is scrupulously faithful to the characters, their situation, their world, never juicing things for added drama, yet never lacking for it as Ale and Isamar struggle to make what constitute relatively minute strides in American life against such long and brutal odds. And somehow the cast of utter amateurs makes no missteps along the way. Likewise, working with such potentially fraught material, and so little of it, Bahrani delivers a nearly perfect film.
In many ways, Chop Shop plays out like a cinematic gloss on a late-period Clash song (something buried deep on side five of Sandinista!, perhaps), so it’s serendipitous that Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten is also hitting DVD. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Strummer’s interest in and empathy for those living tough lives, whether on the other side of the world or the other side of town, was a key part of the Clash’s aesthetic, and one of the reasons he and the band remain beloved by fans decades later. Music-centric filmmaker Julien Temple’s documentary on the person behind the rock star/man-of-the-people persona is likely to leave him even more beloved than before.
This is not to say Strummer was without his contradictions and faults, many of them on display here. The son of a career diplomat, John Mellors was a well-traveled middle-class hippie who for years went by “Woody,” in honor of his idol, Woody Guthrie. When punk turned his head, he turned his back on all of his old groovy friends, some of whom still sound wounded by it today. Strummer’s rise as the frontman of the Clash is countered by the battle of headliner egos that led to the ouster of fellow singer/songwriter/guitarist Mick Jones and the band’s subsequent steep dive into laughability and extinction. Strummer floundered for years thereafter, dabbling in acting and half-hearted stabs at music, searching for who he was supposed to be now, a story fans may know in outline but will be grateful to have fleshed out by Temple’s account. He eventually rediscovered his enthusiasm for life and music and was making the most of both when his heart stopped pumping in 2002.
Given Strummer’s punk directness and his polyglot cultural interests, a standard rock-doc just wouldn’t do. Fortunately, Temple rises to the task with all sorts of non-standard tactics, from animating some of Strummer’s own drawings (he considering becoming a cartoonist while still in school) to filming the talking heads around a campfire, a setting where Strummer apparently spent much of his most treasured time in his final decade or so. Still, the most vivid thing here is the subject himself. Indeed, The Future Is Unwritten almost doesn’t recover from its adrenaline-spiking opening: Strummer alone in a recording studio, shouting out the lyrics to “White Riot” like he was dying within the hour, not 25 years down the road.