THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
It may be a little hard to imagine but there was a time not so long ago when art was dangerous. I mean truly dangerous, full of complex and original ideas that threatened the physical world. Music today has settled into comfortable patterns of corporate marketing schemes and bland, bloodless lyrics, but just under a quarter century ago a group of young London outcasts created a sound that challenged their country and their neighbors in significant ways. The Sex Pistols broke down the walls of what was expressible through music and what was even appropriate as ideology. A sense of excitement and risk, made all the more powerful by their blue-collar backgrounds, grew around them. The punk movement that sprang out of the Pistols' influence would change the music world forever, even if the band itself imploded in less than three years.
The Filth and the Fury is Julien Temple's document of that era. It provides a tremendous amount of context for the times that produced the Pistols' one full-length album, the masterpiece "Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols." In fact, Filth is all about context. It is constructed as a glorious montage of those heady London days when riots spilled into the streets on a daily basis, class and racial warfare were bubbling to the surface, the monarchy tried desperately to exercise control over the unruly masses, and a years-long trash strike literally drowned the streets in piles of trash. The fabric of British society was slipping and Johnny Rotten, the Pistols' singer and lyricist, was there to help tear the seams. But he didn't spring full-grown. The film takes its cues from Rotten's professed inspirations: Olivier's Richard III, Alice Cooper, and various British TV comedians. Weaving together footage from classic Shakespearean adaptations, musical and comedy variety shows, riots, and terrorist bombings, with live Sex Pistol footage Temple creates a collage that emulates the creative process: Take one part comedy, one part theatricality, two parts social outrage, and more than a dash of utter disgust, throw it all in a blender, and you'll get a snarling, sneering flame-haired singer with more understanding of modern society than all the politicos and pundits in Parliament.
And Rotten does come off as that most intelligent, thoughtful punk you can imagine. He observes and understands it all, and still has the distance to sit back and laugh. When the press accuses him of hating mother England he responds that only someone who loves the people of England would stand up and criticize the injustices doled out on them by the Monarchy as viciously as he did.
His criticisms come in the form of some of the most brutal, raw, angry, but also beautiful and smart, songs ever recorded. The power of a song like "God Save the Queen", "Holidays in the Sun", or "Bodies" has not diminished at all with time. The film holds out on the music until the appropriate time. After setting the tone with some historical background Temple introduces the four original members: Rotten, Steve Jones (guitar), Paul Cook (drums), and Glen Matlock (bass), who endures some serious trash-talking from the rest. We also meet Malcolm McLaren, the band's manager who would have us believe that he "created" the Pistols. "My little artful dodgers" he intones, in a very Dickensian moment. "You don't create me. I AM me," Rotten responds. How much control McLaren had over the group is a controversial issue. He already had his say in Temple's previous film on the Pistols, 1980's The Great Rock and Roll Swindle a near-unwatchable mess that proposes that the Pistol's were a shallow gimmick constructed by McLaren with no real influence from Rotten, who had just left the group. Swindle then immediately disproves it's own point by showing pathetic post-Rotten Sex Pistols performances.
Once Filth introduces the players it launches us into the world of London in the late 70's. Rotten belts out the legendary "Anarchy in the UK" amidst an atmosphere of plane bombings and slam dancing. From there it's a wild ride through the Pistol's being fired from two record companies, being banned from the radio (the week "God Save the Queen" was number one, the British charts showed a blank slot in the top position), confrontations with police, Matlock's firing, his replacement with Rotten's friend and huge Sex Pistols' fan Sid Vicious, the introduction of Nancy Spungen, the band's misconceived tour through the midwestern United States, and finally the last show they played, a disastrous meltdown at San Francisco's Winterland theater. No one knew at the time that it would be the last show, but after a dead encore cover of Iggy Pop's "No Fun" when a disappointed Rotten, kneeling at the front of the stage, sighs "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?," possibly the most famous on-stage utterance in rock history, there is no denying that the Pistol's time was over. "The band broke up at exactly the right time for all the wrong reasons," states Rotten, and he's right. They never got old and bloated and, except for the final shows in the US, they never just went through the motions on stage.
Filth displays many of the most familiar elements in a new light. Years of rock criticism and academia have turned writing about the Pistols into its own sub-genre. The film ignores all that and only gives us what happened during the short time that the band was playing. Newly shot interviews are conducted witness protection-style, which helps preserve the youthful images of the group. This isn't a move for vanity, but rather a successful attempt to keep the film thoroughly entrenched in its time period.
When Rotten displays tremendous grief over his inability to have prevented Vicious' fatal heroin overdose his sincerity is shocking. We are so used to his truthful-but-knowing attitude that the tragedy of the loss of his friend, which he now knows was a long time coming, really hits home. Alex Cox's Sid and Nancy portrays this downward spiral as the ultimate romantic tragedy, but the reality of Sid's final days and his relationship with Rotten is far more complex. Despite Gary Oldman's amazing performance as Sid, Sid and Nancy will look kind of silly after Rotten's emotional retelling.
Similarly Steve Jones' apology to Rotten for having taken McLaren's side during the acrimonious dissolution of the band is a slap in the face of classic Pistols lore. We come to see the boys in the band as complex, different people who came together for a short time to create something truly amazing.
Given the variety of sources that compose the film, the picture is great. Crisp images, even of the most dingy basement clubs, have somehow survived. The layered multimedia look of the various film stocks and video sources makes the film seem like a real event.
The audio is terrific. The interviews are clean and understandable, even with some tough accents. The music has real kick. These are some of the best songs of the modern era and you'll want to crank whatever speakers you have.
The extras include a narcoleptic commentary track from director Julien Temple, an original documentary called "Un-Defining Punk," and an overheated trailer. On the commentary track Temple could have discussed his own involvement in the punk scene and, more importantly, what he thinks about the differing viewpoints of The
Filth and the Fury and The Great Rock and Roll
Swindle but instead he takes long long pauses between mumbled comments. This is one commentary track that doesn't really add to the film.
The documentary consists mostly of video-shot talking heads and features an impressive array of seminal punks and punk-hanger-ons like Richard Hell (Television, Richard Hell and the Voivod's), Keith Morris (Black Flag, The Circle Jerks), and Penelope Spheeris (Director of the punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization). Duane Peters, skateboard legend and member of the U.S. Bombs, is particularly entertaining in his off-hand discussion of his years of drug and alcohol abuse. With his heavily tattooed body and numerous skateboarder injuries he comes off as the ultimate punk journeyman.
While the sounds and messages of the bands discussed in Un-Defining Punk are vastly different from the Sex Pistols, the video gives a pretty good background on other punk scenes. Filth displays such an intense focus on the Pistols that the video helps flesh out the rest of the punk world.
The trailer tries to
make the film look like an action movie with loud
sound effects and flying titles. It's entertaining but not essential.
A film of this variety can only be as compelling as its subjects and the Pistols, Rotten in particular, are great subjects. Regardless of whether you're a fan or totally uninitiated there is much to entertain, amaze, and shock in the story of the Sex Pistols. This is a rare film that tells you that the subjects are fighting for something and doesn't rest until you know what that something is. With overtly political songs and a culture of attack, the Sex Pistols were said to have fired the shot heard 'round the world. The Filth and the Fury shows exactly what that means.
Sid and Nancy
Gil Jawetz is a graphic designer, video director, and t-shirt designer. He lives in Brooklyn.
E-mail Gil at firstname.lastname@example.org