Movie Review By Casey McCabe
I'll admit that I did not initially get the Sex Pistols, or a lot of the punk rock that followed in the late 1970s. I was of the right age but in the wrong country. Bruce Springsteen handled my defiant rock anthems fine, thanks, and the Sex Pistols – man I hated sounding like my Dad, but – that's just not music! Then there were the green teeth, the ratty clothes, the spitting and bloodletting….’scuse me, Johnny Rotten, but that's no way to pick up a sweet lady in the States.
Yet I've never forgotten the first time I heard the opening assault of "Anarchy in the U.K.," the chill that went down my comfortable Middle-American spine and the thrilling prospect that somehow rock and roll would never be the same. I still get that chill. Not from nostalgia, but because the song is still such a great punch in the gut of complacency. But what does this mean? Does anyone today "get" the Sex Pistols any better than they ever did?
Director Julien Temple has returned to the scene of many crimes with "The Filth and the Fury" a new documentary that 20 some years after the fact, myth and rumor, serves the Sex Pistols up for reevaluation and, perhaps, a proper place in history. This is Temple's second go-round documenting the Pistols. His first, "The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle" took the already jaded 1980 viewpoint of band manager Malcolm McLaren that the Sex Pistols were his creation, and the band members little more than sock puppets in a diabolically clever piece of antisocial performance art he foisted on the world. McLaren does not fare well in "The Filth and the Fury." An older and wiser Julien Temple has now sided with the band, and when McLaren is given a voice in the film we see only an anonymous figure in full hooded S&M gear, a caricature of blind self-absorption. The joke — if there's still one left — is on him.
Temple also chooses not to show us the older and wiser Johnny Rotten, Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Glen Matlock, who was replaced by the more infamous Sid Vicious, who died of a heroin overdose in 1978 after stabbing his girlfriend and thus inspiring his own movie, "Sid and Nancy." Oh the original members are all still with us, each in his own recent solo interview, speaking candidly, and in Rotten's case quite eloquently. But Temple has made them visible only in silhouette, apparently sparing us the flinch of watching young punks turn old in the wink of an edit.
Temple is also working with an incredible cache of never before seen Sex Pistols footage. He captures the runaway acceleration of the band's 26 months in existence, from their terrified first gig, through their ascendancy to Fleet Street's favorite whipping boys, to their professional suicide in a final performance at San Francisco's Winterland in 1978. This last is a truly stunning clip: Johnny Rotten singing the refrain of Iggy Pop's "No Fun" over and over and over as the last flicker of fire in his eyes slowly dies out. Not only an indelible documentary moment, I'm not sure I've seen a single better scene in any film this year.
Temple has a lot more screen time to fill and he does have a lot of fun ransacking the BBC and other sources for semi-relevant clips of the times and culture that spawned the Sex Pistols. And indeed it would be ridiculous not to consider the political component of British punk. Yet what emerges from and lingers after "The Filth and the Fury" is a timeless story of working class mates and the spoils of success. 20 years later the members of the Sex Pistols aren't mourning the state of anarchy, they're still sorting out where friendships went wrong, still holding out for reconciliation, still remembering when they were just…a band.
It's the small, personal things that count in this world. And I'd include this documentary among them. Even if you never particularly cared for the Sex Pistols — especially if you never particularly cared for the Sex Pistols — I really must insist that you see this film.
© 2000 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 4/26/00
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