The Filth and the Fury (2000)

D: Julien Temple

Surprisingly passionate documentary portrait of the rise and fall of the Sex Pistols from the director of The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle. In many ways the flip side of the earlier film (which essentially argued that they were the creation of producer Malcolm McLaren), it combines contemporary interviews with the surviving members of the band with a wealth of fascinating archive footage to tell the story from their point of view. Cleverly, the interviews are shot in silhouette so that their faces cannot be seen. The film therefore succeeds in bringing the pistols to life as they were, rather than slipping into retrospection. The technique delivers its greatest punch in the final scenes where Johnny Rotten's voice breaks with emotion when speaking of the death of Sid Vicious, but, throughout, it reinforces the visual evidence provided by the extensive archival material showing all sides of the band: exciting, invigorating, anarchic, offensive, repulsive, and, finally, pathetic. Cheaply shot, well edited, scored to the proverbial max with noisy Dolby stereo versions of the classic tracks (along with a variety of amusing snippets from more conventional musicians of the era), the film is an effective reminder of a time now dead and gone, and a reasonably credible argument in favour of the authentic intentions of the players.

Among its myriad of sources of footage, the film draws upon material presented in The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, but it marks its intention to depart from its predecessor early on as various band members dismiss McLaren and his theories with audible contempt. Again, these men are no longer the teenage bad boys they were, and their words have an edge of long experience and resentment which has less to to with adolescent angst than it does with a sort of counter-cynicism, a rejection of the artificiality which the earlier film accused them of. Temple locates the band within an urban Britain of the 1970s revealed in a series of clips of riots, strikes, and protests which compresses (and exaggerates) the tensions of the era to which the band felt themselves a legitimate response. Proceeding then to a detailed account of the formation of the original line-up, it does not shy away from showing how central McLaren was to the development and marketing of the act, however dubious the band (and the audience, who share their point of view thanks to Temple's direction) may have been of his motives. It then charts the introduction of Johnny Rotten and follows them through the edgy, underground days before the eventual arrival of Sid Vicious and the band's decline. The film on the whole tries to support Rotten's impassioned claims that the pistols were a reaction to the culture and politics of 1970s Britain. Yet it concentrates primarily on the kiss 'n' tell details that the audience rightfully expect rather than presenting evidence to prove these contentions, and indeed, as Rotten notes with despair, punk itself became codified, commodified, and safe to the point where whatever political or anarchic element there may have been to the band's act ivies, it quickly became moot.

None of this prevents the film from being a very good portrait of the events of those turbulent two years during which the Sex Pistols became a sensation and then self-destructed. Neither does it prevent it from having a point of view which is clearly articulated and is interesting in its own right. Its historic specificity is part of its strength, as the almost unbearably young faces of the band are poignant enough in retrospect without needing to see them now for the audience make the connections. It is a thought-provoking film, and sustains interest over almost two hours not merely as an endless parade of obscenity and controversy, but as an evocation of time, place, and zeitgeist which will provide moments of pause to those who remember the days without appealing to nostalgia. It is ironic though that in the climate of apathy affecting the youth culture of today, what was once the most hated and feared group of boys in England now seem relatively benign. One comes away feeling well disposed towards them because at least they had convictions, albeit motivated merely by frustration and rage, and, in their own way, they attempted to change things instead of sitting back and dismissing life with a blasé shrug.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.