as reviewed by Skylaire Alfvegren
As the catalyst for England's punk explosion, few bands have been draped in as much mythology as the Sex Pistols. England's Dreaming, Jon Savage's unwieldy tome of the birth of punk rock, Alex Cox' Sid and Nancy, and manager Malcolm McClaren's self-aggrandizing 1980 doc, The Great Rock and Roll Swindle have all ensured the band's iconic status. All bullocks.
Much of the footage used in Swindle came from the obsessive camera of Julien Temple, who abandoned film school to document the band in 1975. With The Filth and the Fury, he allows the remaining band members to set the record straight and explain how their brief existence was able to frighten 1970s Britannia as much as "communism or hyper-inflation."
Recent interviews with John Lydon, guitarist Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook and original bassist Glen Matlock are shot in silhouette to transport viewers back to ground zero. Events that have been enshrined in punk rock history–signing their A&M contract in front of Buckingham Palace, the last performance in San Francisco, the television appearance Matlock utters "fuck" on–are cut in with loads of Pistols footage found in a forgotten vault and turned over to Temple.
More importantly, it illustrates in very visual terms just what sucked about the '70s. Back then, Temple used a primitive VCR-like contraption to record television newsreels, department store adverts and variety show performers in all their blow-dried, polyestered glory. Intercut with the Pistols material, this footage preserves the attitudes, fashions and general stupidities that forced punk rock into existence. The images are as distant and foreign as plate-lipped Ubangis dancing for National Geographic.
Even the sound editing is exhilarating. Temple creates a stunningly cool collage. The Pistols' music, interviews and audio snippets bleed into each other to build a sounds cape that's ambient and punk rock all at once.
Both then and now, John Lydon (AKA Johnny Rotten), comes off as bright and articulate, a wicked social commentarian instead of the snot-nosed hellion the press made him out to be. To Lydon, the early punk scene wasn't about childish rebellion, or making money, but individuality. "People were beautiful in not being beautiful. People with no self esteem now had it." Their DIY ethic lives on, and for those of us who believe cultural co-opting to be a product of MTV, it's almost comforting to discover that punk, the ultimate scene, was a brief moment in time that was quickly corrupted by a vampiric press and an "army of fashion victims." McClaren, the Pistol's self-centered Svengali, comes off as a bigger ass than he has previously. He made sure the band remained in the public eye, complete with tabloid headlines, death threats and secret tours, but still fails to realize that without Lydon's misanthropic sarcasm, rabid stage presence and observant eyes, his "manufactured" act would've been a footnote to another story.