See Johnny Cry

We mean it, man: The Sex Pistols in The Filth and the Fury

Mad Magazine couldn't even get the punk fashions right when it ran a loose parody of the Sex Pistols' American tour in 1978--same issue as "Star Bores," if memory serves. But it was influential nonetheless, at least for one eight-year-old who had never heard of the British band with the funny name. I showed it to my father and asked, "Why are these guys barfing and peeing on people?" His answer, in grave tones: "They play punk rock, which means they have no talent and make money by offending as many people as possible." The word filth never came up--too prudish, maybe, for Dad's liberalism--but filth was what he was talking about.

And filth is what The Filth and the Fury is about, its title lifted from the sort of anti-Pistols British tabloid headline that makes you nostalgic for the power of shock that tabloid culture numbed. Even today American audiences for this Julien Temple-directed documentary on punk's founding antichrists might share something like my father's conception of the band as a sensational con. Yet in many ways, Filth is a refutation of the director's previous Sex Pistols film, the equally bracing The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle (1980), which posits that the whole enterprise was nothing but a con. The notion that band manager Malcolm McLaren somehow played Situationist Svengali through his disastrous PR work was taken as something of a good joke among punks. But the thesis gets a round debunking in Filth, where various band members speak in faceless silhouette, to oddly intimate effect. (The late Sid Vicious appears in a 1979 video interview.)

Thus Filth is meant to be something of a last word. "I don't think you can say why things happened, except to say sometimes they just should," drawls Johnny Rotten/John Lydon in his wicked-witch cadence. "And the Sex Pistols should have happened and did"--and on that note, film editor Niven Howie cuts to a concert shot of Vicious spitting into the lens.

What emerges from the rollick and roar that follows is a human-scale version of punk history, and a sense that the musicians knew full well what was at stake during their 26 months together. The movie asks us to believe that British media consumers might have seen in the band not a confirmation of their worst fears about the young, but about themselves--a stretch. At least Temple shows how giving offense was a way of giving lie--to Labour's "benevolence," to the right's racial solidarity, to the monarch's gracious populism.

The movie almost lovingly recounts one of British punk's favorite bedtime stories--the day guitarist Steve Jones said "fuck" on the telly, an event subsequently greeted in the media with all the relaxed bemusement afforded a German bombing raid. The incident began when the Pistols appeared on the Today Programme, where its smug and visibly drunk host goaded Jones into saying something "outrageous." Dissolving the mythical gloss by breaking the moment down, blow by blow, in freeze-frame, the interviewees reveal something interesting: that Johnny Rotten's freedom poetry reflected, rather than hijacked, the natural energy of the band. In fact, just being themselves--working-class London kids with no false sense of reverence--the Sex Pistols made freedom suddenly very palpable. "I loved it," Jones remembers of the show. "I was like, 'Finally I'm alive.'"

The rest of the saga is more familiar--the booting of a member (bassist Glen Matlock), a tragic OD (Sid's demise)--but the plot points gain poignance through Temple's interviews, which provoke sincere, if not always persuasive, outpourings. At one point Rotten breaks into tears while talking about Vicious, whose death he seems to blame on McLaren. These sort of conversations--not to mention access to footage from some 20 hours of vault reels--would have been impossible had Temple made the film independent of band control. Yet, like recent band-shaped documentaries from the Clash and Fugazi, Filth suffers from its lack of scope and outside voices. One question I would have asked: What did the "faggot"-baiting Pistols think of their gay fans? (And I don't mean junkie-pale critic Nick Kent, who looks like he just fell out of an ambulance.) Along these lines, why did Rotten model his persona after Sir Laurence Olivier's drag-queen posturing--ingeniously sampled by Temple--as Richard III?

The Pistols must know they created an arena for reinvention that quickly outstripped their ability to reinvent themselves. (Who truly pines for a sophomore album, anyway--I mean, besides Jones and drummer Paul Cook?) But their tale bears retelling for the same reason "God Save the Queen" warrants obsessive replay--not as a mantra but as a curse on one's own false sense of propriety and perceived limitations. As it turned out, the filth of their punk--a term popularized in the first place by aspiring Mad cartoonist John Holmstrom--came back to my father in the form of his son's Dead Kennedys and Crucifucks albums. Beautiful curse words, those. God save.


The Filth and the Fury starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre.

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