A documentary with interviews of Paul Cook, Steve Jones, Johnny Lyden, Glen
Matlock, Malcolm McLaren, Nancy Spungen and Sid Vicious.
No, I'm afraid Johnny Rotten is wrong: the Sex Pistols were not the first
band to provide anthems for the young discontented. And their gigs were not
the first opportunity for females to express individuality. But thank God
they thought so, because their self-importance spurred them on, and as they
became more extreme, they pissed off all the right people. It wasn't exactly
a case of their lyrics exposing the depravity or hypocrisy of the British
establishment; their outrageousness provoked it into exposing itself.
Consider: At one point during the group's short life, in the period of
1977-78, one London city councillor was riled enough to declare that they
would be "much improved by sudden death". When their controversial single
"God Save the Queen" rose to Number One on the British charts, it was denied
a listing, leaving the top spot blank. And who could forget their infamous
live television appearance with Bill Grundy, where they exploited his
drunkenness by slipping swear words into the conversation. Grundy, half
asleep, thought he was having a calm chat; the audience was outraged.
Julien Temple's "The Filth and the Fury" is a masterful new documentary about
the fuss the Sex Pistols caused, which takes us through the above events and
many more. It's one helluva colourful history. The title comes from one of a
multitude of angry tabloid headlines, that sit in public record as a reminder
of what a ridiculous fuss the reaction to the Pistols was. They of course
found it delightful, because pushing the buttons of stuffed shirts gave them
a thrill, and everyone who took a stern line on them ended up looking
foolish. "The Filth and the Fury" shows this well. For anyone who thinks
violent thoughts at the sight of Daily Mail reporters or conservative MPs,
it's a movie that inspires applause, and giggles of subversive glee.
The story of the Pistols has been told in two previous feature-length
documentaries, "The Great Rock and Rock 'n Roll Swindle" (1980) and "D.O.A."
(1981). "Swindle" was reportedly manipulated into a piece of self-exaltation
by the band's control-freak manager, Malcolm McLaren, and most critics
rejected "D.O.A." as obvious junk. Since "The Filth and The Fury" has been
made twenty years after the events it depicts, Temple, the director, has the
benefit of hindsight, maturity, and access to a bigger collection of footage
than ever before.
His film sets up a historical context for its tale, depicting the atmosphere
of Britian in the 70s, when garbage piled up in central London, protests
about everything dominated the news, the National Front gained support and
wild fashions offered people an escape from reality. The Sex Pistols did not
solve this with revolutionary profundity, but you have do give them credit
for a dirty and aggressive form of artistic expression that was much more
in-keeping with the spirit of the time than cheery disco music. Screaming
about anarchy and wearing torn leathers simply made more sense than longing
for "Night Fever" over a blow-drier.
Temple takes this idea too far when he cuts between the Pistols sizzling
onstage and such images as the stand-up comedy of Ken Dodd and the
over-the-top celebrations of the Queen's Silver Jubilee. He's trying to show
how awesome the greatness of the band was against the cheesy culture of its
time, but this is the one argument in the film that doesn't ring true,
because we're never convinced that the excerpts we see are truly emblematic
of that culture. Think about it -- you could take clips of a Peter Kaye
routine and public grief over Princess Diana, and intercut them with a Blur
performance of "Song 2". It wouldn't prove anything about the 90s.
This is a minor quibble, because the Sex Pistols' songs are strong enough to
give power to the film without having to serve as a rebuttal for lesser art.
Reviews shovelling the old cliché that you can enjoy the movie without being
a fan seem to have been written by critics who either liked the music but
felt silly afterward, or got a headache from the movie but didn't want to
look square for denouncing it on that basis. "The Filth and the Fury" revels
in Pistols iconography, and if you hate that, you'll hate the picture.
But I love the Sex Pistols -- their filth, their fury, their irony, energy,
edge. And as long as viewers go without an aversion to the band, they should
find "The Filth and the Fury" to be a work of greatness. The film mixes
present-day interviews with archive footage shot on primitive videotape, but
it's not like every other music documentary doing that -- the audio from the
interviews is mostly overlayed over the old film clips, and so everything
happens in our head, like a radio play. The few times the new interviews are
shown onscreen, the faces are in silhouette, and the photographic style
matches the grainy, pixelated stuff -- so we're never conscious of the film
transitions, and the hypnotic spell is unbroken.
Copyright © 2000 UK Critic