Film Commentary [6-25-00]
Sex Pisols redux - - The Filth and the Fury
Genre: Documentary
Grade = B+


This is the second documentary by Julien Temple who also gave us the Sex Pistols documentary The Great Rock ‘n' Roll Swindle. The title comes from a Daily Mirror headline of 1978 describing the band's exploits.

The film begins with a retrospective of the conditions of Britain in the late 1970s. The British Empire lays in ruins and even the basic infrastructure of the country is in devolution. Massive unemployment, strikes of every kind, riots and millions of unemployed on the dole leave the youth of the country in desperation of ever finding employment or a decent life in the near term, let alone the future. The nation is under the spineless leadership of the Labour Party and the working people of Britain in despair.

The film then focuses on the lives of the members of the band. Born and bred in working class London, in their teens they saw that the promises of post-war England have resulted in their inheritance of not a economically energetic nation like America, but a slum instead. They see that they have no future. This become the undercurrent theme of their music. "No future. No future," are the repeated lyrics in various songs, especially in the chorus of God Save the Queen.

In 1976, Paul Cook, Steve Jones, and a fetish shop owner Malcolm McLaren decide that they should form a band with McLaren as manager. The only problems are that none of them know how to play any instruments. They find John Lydon as a singer who takes the name Johnny Rotten and later as a replacement bassist, Sid Vicious. They call the band the Sex Pistols. They have the best equipment available, mainly because they stole them from David Bowie. They begin to play some gigs and get some attention. Johnny Rotten has such poor clothing that he has to keep them together with safety pins. Their music and the style create the phenomena known as the punk rock music scene.

Throughout the course of the film we see how the Sex Pistols were first signed by EMI records after recording the song Anarchy in the UK, only to be thrown out for their outrageous behavior such as swearing on a popular TV interview show. They soon become the focus of attention for the press, with reporters hanging on their every remark. They end up selling more issues of one newspaper in one day than it did on armistice day. They are then signed by A&M. They party in the record label's office resulting in their being fired the next day. They are then picked up by Virgin Records and record the song God Save the Queen for the Queen's Jubilee. It outrageous the nation, the press and the authorities, however, it is extremely popular. The press refuses to name it as number one song of the week. Leaving the number one spot simply blank.

Enter Nancy Spungen as Sid's new girlfriend. Nominally a singer for the group New York Dolls, she confesses on film to be a former prostitute and boasting of her great blow jobs. The other members of the band despise her to this day and count her as one of the factors that broke up the band. After viewing this film, I can confidently say that she is the personification of the term ‘skank', and makes Courtney Love look like Audrey Hepburn, and I detest Courtney Love with a passion. The film displays the band's disintegration leading to the murder of Nancy by Sid in New York and his ultimate death by heroin overdose.

Temple uses video shot of the band from their initial inception to their final performance at the end of their disastrous American tour were they were booked into such notable punk enthusiastic centers as Tulsa, Oklahoma. That is one of the problems with the film. It is one thing to see video on TV, it is another thing to see it blown up to the big screen. He also uses photos in narrative, unfortunately he has the habit of focusing and then unfocusing on the image repeatedly which I found not to be aesthetic, but annoying and leading to a headache.

Temple also interplays scenes of Lawrence Olivier's film version of Shakespear's Richard III throughout the documentary to emphasis a sense of villainy. Footage of the band's performances with the contemporary interviews of the band's members display their contempt for their society and the fact that they are all basically total assholes to begin with.

One of the most compelling elements of the film is the performances of the band, displaying their basic animalistic talent for the genre. Johnny Rotten's vocals combined with the simplistic lyrics still cut through you like a knife after 22 years in retrospective. Temple does show one stroke of genius by filming the contemporary interviews of the surviving band members backlite, their features cast in shadow as if they were mafia informers. Absolutely brilliant.

While it cannot be doubted that the Sex Pistols ended up being one of the most influential bands of rock history and worshiped by historians of the genre, one most also take into consideration of that their main claim to fame was their ability to shock virtually everyone at virtually all levels by merely being the complete assholes that they were.

This is intriguing material that is certainly worth a look, with the great use of interplay of concert scenes, interviews and news footage. It makes the grung theme of rebellion look lachrymosely weak compared to that of punk. However, the film does tend to slow down in the second half after the excitement of the band's creation and initial phenomena, unable to sustain the initial mania. The one thing the film does show is the basic lower class stupidity of Sid with his self centered boorishness and ultimate decline to self destruction. Not tragic, but pathetic.

The one thing this film lacks is a sense of closure. What happen to the surviving members in the last twenty years? What are they doing in their middleage? I would like to know, but this question remained unanswered.

If you are interested, you may want to see the 1986 film Sid and Nancy starring Gary Oldman, telling the story of the doomed couple. However, be warned, I found the movie to be depressing and both of the title characters to be completely unsympathetic.


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