Rock’s aging bad boys finally give it up
The 25-year hissy fit between Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols continues to rage in Julian Temple’s engaging documentary about everybody’s favorite spitting, puking punk band. The Filth and the Fury (2000) describes one of the strangest Svengali-Trilby relationships in a music riddled with self-styled gurus and self-destructive brats. But unless previous chronicles of the group – the lurid feature Sid and Nancy and Temple’s own The Great Rock and Roll Swindle (1980) – this one lets the major players, at least those who are still around, speak for themselves.
Temple uses some clever comic conceits in framing this ride through a heady time in rock history. Malcolm “Svengali” McLaren, who was ultimately just another fashion queen, is seen suitably squeezed into a head-to-toe rubber body suit, mumbling his comments through a tiny hole for his mouth. The Pistols aren’t wearing rubber, or leather, or even their trademark slashed shirts – at least it appears they aren’t. In their contemporary interviews, they talk directly to the camera, but inexplicably they’re swathed in shadows, articulate but silhouetted. This might appear vanity on their part, but was in fact another of Temple’s conceits. “We didn’t want the audience to be taken away from the extraordinary energy and purity the Pistols had” – and “youth,” he might have added, since showing them might upset young audiences by showing that time spares no one.
Temple got access to a previously forgotten cache of over 20 hours of original footage – concerts, interviews, rehearsals, TV appearances – of the Pistols in their prime. That material plus the interviews puts a welcome end to the notion, promulgated by McLaren, that the Pistols were a sort of punk version of the Monkees, fabricated to capture the zeitgeist of the period, along with as much money as possible for the promoter. McLaren’s ego, even when he’s encased in latex, apparently won’t allow him to drop the pose that the boys were automatons and he their brilliant mad scientist. He still calls them “my little lads” and says, in an apotheosis of hip crassness, “I wanted them to compete with the Bay City Rollers.”
The film shows unequivocally that the “lads” emerged organically from the class and race cruelties of Thatcher’s England. Using a collage style, The Filth and the Fury not only captures the period, but makes clear the connections between the boys’ violent working-class music and the skyscraper tenements and garbage-clogged streets in which they grew up. Most articulate, not unexpectedly, is Johnny Lydon aka Rotten, the lyricist of the group. He’s poetic even in his excess: “It’s hell, it’s hard, it’s horrible,” he says at the opening, nicely echoing not only the band’s experience but the reaction of a puzzled mainstream to a new style of music. In his own words he went from a “quiet churchmouse” in his young teens to someone who “managed to offend everyone.”
Some of the strongest material here are the concert scenes, which show the group mostly at its raucous, uninhibited best. There were low moments, to be sure, and they’re also here. The Pistols’ tour of America was an unmitigated disaster. Booked by an uncomprehending record company into the Longhorn Saloon and accompanied by bodyguards, the boys were reviled and assaulted by a crowd that must have preferred a safer brand of punk. More typical are the club concerts in England, littered with generic scenesters and the future famous like Siouxsie Sioux and Billy Idol and their number-one fan who had a brief run as a Pistol, Sid Vicious. The influence of these small events by a group that only existed for a bit over two years was significant. “Seeing us playing only three chords,” Lydon says, let the scenesters know they could all do it, and they did.
Unlike Vicious, Lydon and his collaborators – Steve Jones, Paul Cook, and Glen Matlock – were serious about and dedicated to their music. “The work at the end of the day is what’s worth it,” he says. The fact that they were able to wrest away from McLaren and other competing forces for the complete rights to their musical catalog shows that they indeed created their own sound. And their album “Never Mind the Bollocks – Here’s the Sex Pistols” remains as fresh and hard as when it first came out in 1977.
As serious as the film is in trying to correct a labyrinthine history, there’s also plenty of humor. Temple injects his own wit in scenes from a particularly overcooked 1950s film of Richard III, contrasting the fussiness of the noble Shakespearean world (as we imagine it) with the screaming fits of the Pistols strumming and spitting their way to fame. And The Filth and the Fury is also, of all things, an anti-drug film. A few minutes of a rare 1978 interview with Sid Vicious, a hunky boy unhinged (and eventually killed) by smack, could make any junkie think twice.