A riposte of sorts to his seminal “The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle” two decades after the fact, Julien Temple’s “The Filth and the Fury” exists to present the Sex Pistols’ own view of the definitive punk band’s chaotic, exciting, berserk and enormously influential brief history. Although this smoothly made docu, which Fine Line will roll out in the spring, will mean the most to fans who lived through the tumultuous punk era, young music-savvy viewers who weren’t even born during the group’s 26-month existence in the late ’70s could easily be attracted to this spiky and entertaining look at some of rock history’s greatest contrarians. Good response in the admittedly limited market for music-oriented docus will be followed by a long video life.
First shown in 1980, two years after the Sex Pistols broke up and a year after the fatal OD of bass player Sid Vicious, but long held in litigation limbo and never widely seen, “The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle” was artistically very much a product of its time, as well as a pure expression of the cynicism of the band’s trendy manager, Malcolm McLaren. Made without the cooperation of the group, pic gave a platform to McLaren’s boast that the Pistols were essentially a hoax perpetrated by him to prove how easy it was to create a rock sensation simply by making the band as hateful and untalented as possible. At the same time, the film was a tremendous rush and funny to boot.
Naturally, the Pistols themselves, long estranged from McLaren, have a rather different view of their story, and Temple has now joined forces with them to put it onscreen. Front and center, of course, is John Lydon — Johnny Rotten of yore — the wild man who popularized safety-pin fashions and spitting at the audience, whose overriding point is that the Pistols were not a manufactured product but a true expression of working-class discontent and rebellion. While the band became notorious for many understandable reasons — its rag-doll look, fallings out with record labels, swearing on TV, anarchic songs, anti-social attitudes and general incorrigibility — it also became misunderstood for what Lydon believes were many wrong reasons, beginning with McLaren’s self-mythologizing, media sensationalizing and distortions by unreliable music historians. Hence his desire to set the record straight.
Pic’s format — mini-bios of band members accompanied by interviews (oddly shot against bright backdrops so that subjects are silhouetted and featureless), archival footage of domestic social strife and punk London, period-setting snippets of Brit films (Olivier’s “Richard III” figures prominently), TV shows and entertainers, and fabulous documentation of the Pistols’ career, beginning with intense and highly claustrophobic club dates — actually makes for a relatively conventional overview of the band and the scene that fostered it; “Filth” is far less crazed, radical and anarchic than “Swindle” due to its historical distance from the material as opposed to the earlier film’s utter absorption in it.
Amusing sequences are devoted to the anything-goes atmosphere prevalent at McLaren’s shop in Chelsea, where he sold, among other things, rubber sex suits. Seen from the top, as it were, the emerging punk scene is painted almost nostalgically as a time (just a couple of years, per Lydon) of great excitement and fun, and the film does make it look quite entertaining in retrospect, almost like large-scale performance art rather than as a threatening movement pregnant with incipient violence, which is how the establishment saw it.
Further highlights include the legendary appearance of the Pistols and some acolytes on Bill Grundy’s Thames talk show, during which they shocked the nation by breaking the taboo against uttering obscenities on TV; their defiant riverboat “performance” on the Queen’s Jubilee Day, resulting in their arrest and further ignominy, and the band’s self-immolation after just three dates on a U.S. tour, a bust-up said to be instigated by McLaren.
What with their constant set-tos with labels, changes in personnel, swirling controversy and never-ending battles to find venues agreeable to hosting their live gigs, the Sex Pistols produced only one album. Happily, their incendiary classics — “Anarchy in the U.K.,” “God Save the Queen,” “EMI,” “Pretty Vacant” — are heard here in all their scratchy splendor; fans will be well satisfied musically and historically. They will also probably feel that they’ve gotten their fill from the band members themselves; Steve Jones, Paul Cook, original member Glen Matlock and even his replacement, Vicious (via an interview Temple conducted in 1978), have their say, although they are inevitably overshadowed, still, by Lydon, who engagingly relates his version of the truth and has no shortage of regard for the significance of the Pistols’ cultural contributions.
Despite the eclectic nature of the film’s visual and aural sources, tech package is highly polished.