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The Filth and the Fury (2000)
In 1976, art student-turned-armchair politico-turned-radical
haberdasher Malcolm McLaren decided to start a rock and roll band. He was interested in
testing his Situationist-derived notions about instigating street revolt through pop
culture, but mainly he just wanted to sell more clothes.
When Steve Jones and Paul Cook, two working class dropouts who frequented his boutique, started a garage band, he saw his opportunity and offered to manage them. That they were bumbling and thuggish, fueled more by enthusiasm than any native skill, was all to the good, since McLaren wanted to create a sensation out of nothing but outrage and his own entrepreneurial flair. They quickly recruited Glen Matlock, a pop-savvy bassist, and then Johnny Rotten (nee John Lydon), a wild-eyed crank who wandered the King's Road fashion district in tattered, threadbare suits held together with safety pins.
Christened "The Sex Pistols," they were soon writing songs and playing clubs and art schools. With each gig, more fans turned up dressed in the slash and burn, confrontational style of the band. Once these fans started their own bands, a movement - punk rock - was underway.
The Sex Pistols released their first single, "Anarchy in the U.K.," in November 1976. It's among the two or three most important rock and roll records ever recorded, and its impact is still being felt today. In its short career, the band upended fundamental assumptions about rock music, its audience and its marketing, and in the process restored the vitality that had been sucked out of the music since it began to take itself seriously in the mid-'60's.
The band's rancorous breakup in early 1978 has led to a war over control of their story. The first battle was won decisively by McLaren, who used funds he embezzled from the band to make The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, a feature length film depicting his version. McLaren presents himself as a Machiavellian genius who founded the band, fed them material and strategized their climb to the top. That the film is a ridiculous collection of lies is belied by its brilliance. It is a stunning pastiche of styles and tones, mixing politics and exploitation, music video and cartoons, as though Jean-Luc Godard and Tex Avery co-directed a film written by Frank Tashlin. First-time director Julien Temple just manages to keep the wildly disparate elements in place, and the result is a hugely entertaining, sprawling disaster of a film.
Temple's new documentary, The Filth and The Fury, feels like an act of atonement. Having helped McLaren bilk the band of all its earnings in the service of his self-aggrandizing movie, Temple now lets the band have their say. The result is a less dazzling, but far richer, account of their career.
The first order of business is establishing that the band could actually play. McLaren has always fostered the self-serving notion that they never knew what they were doing, though this couldn't be further from the truth. They were certainly limited musicians, never straying from the blunt three chord barrage they cribbed from the Stooges and the Small Faces, but they were also extremely powerful, with a knack for building pop hooks out of the simplest devices: sudden starts and stops, soccer chants for backing vocals, and a huge guitar sound. Rotten was an abrasive and atonal singer, but a canny one. He toyed with accents and inflection, using staccato delivery, deliberately flat pitch and precise, dramatic diction to overcome his inability. Like Bob Dylan, he is a terrible vocalist but a great singer.
The Filth and the Fury carefully recreates the world that produced punk. Temple forgoes the conventions of music documentary, opting for images that broaden the story rather than simple illustrations. We hear the band members in off-screen interviews while drinking in the fog of malaise that blanketed mid-'70's London: garbage strikes, street demonstrations, puerile television ads and video clips from bloated rock bands. Temple also wittily interweaves footage from Olivier's Richard III, a formative influence on Rotten, as well as comedy bits from British television. Only when the band begins its ascent do we get performance footage and talking head interviews.
It's an odd, distancing tactic, one rooted in the Situationist films of Guy Debord, which pit "found" advertising footage against a soundtrack of political analysis in an attempt to "detourne," or recontextualize, the imagery. (The Sex Pistols may have ignored McLaren's theoretical directives, but Temple certainly seems to have been paying attention.) This strategy has the great advantage of bringing us back to the band's moment. The Sex Pistols have been so canonized that it's easy to forget how shocking they really were, how their aggressive posture forced a listener to take sides. Seeing what amounts to a documentary of British life in 1976 allows us to fully register their impact.
The technique detracts, however, from the performances, since Temple never lets us see the band play an entire song. (It may be that he's hemmed in by inadequate source material. He utilizes sections of Swindle (including, unfortunately, its dreadful cartoons), Don Letts' The Punk Rock Movie and Lech Kowalski's concert film D.O.A., much of which was poorly shot and edited to begin with.) Each glimpse of one of Rotten's scabrous, mesmerizing performances tears away at the film: the songs are so overwhelming that the very intriguing material surrounding them suffers horribly in comparison.
The film drags somewhat after its brilliant first half, primarily because we become inured to the delightful jolts of its juxtapositions. The manic drive simply can't be sustained once we understand Temple's tricks. Worse, the film's strict chronology means that its second half focuses too intently on Sid Vicious, the bumpkin who replaced Matlock as bassist towards the end of the band's career. His short life followed a sad trajectory: punk fan to famous musician to junkie to murderer to death by overdose, all in under two years. To its enormous credit, The Filth and the Fury resists mythologizing him (unlike Sid and Nancy, which in its compassion inadvertently creates tragic role models), but the film never recaptures its momentum after his arrival.
The Filth and the Fury isn't the definitive account of the Sex Pistols' career. Jon Savage's comprehensive book, England's Dreaming, will likely remain the best work on the subject. In his effort to right the wrongs of The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, Temple dismisses McLaren's substantial contributions altogether, going so far as to ignore such other collaborators as Vivienne Westwood and the great graphic artist Jamie Reid, presumably because they were in McLaren's camp.
For all its distortions and lapses, The Filth and the Fury is an exciting, innovative film, made with a formal rigor all but unknown in its genre. One can pay it no greater compliment than to say that it is worthy of its subject.
- Gary Mairs