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Friday, Nov. 10, 2000


I wanna see some of history

When punk detonated in the late '70s, the Sex Pistols were deemed "the last rock band," the death of rock 'n' roll. Well, the corpse has been reanimated for one last pogo dance, in a new film by dedicated Pistols' documentarian Julien Temple. "The Filth and the Fury" focuses exclusively on the surviving Pistols' account of those crazy days, and mixes period footage with voice-over commentary by singer John Lydon (a k a Johnny Rotten), guitarist Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook and bassist Glen Matlock (later replaced by the more notorious Sid Vicious).

In some ways, this film is an atonement by Temple for his work on an earlier Sex Pistols film, "The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle," a mockumentary that portrayed the band members as mere puppets manipulated by their devious manager, Malcolm McLaren. In that film, McLaren claimed, hissing through a sinister rubber fetish mask, "It's people that I used, like an artist, that I manipulated. They were my art, that I created." In "The Filth and the Fury," John Lydon can barely conceal his contempt as he gets in his long-awaited riposte: "You don't create me."

Temple's film covers the band's short and explosive career (two years, one album) with the bare minimum of context, sketching the contours of an England in decline, addicted to dreams of faded imperial glory and a rigidly class-based society. The film traces how the band formed out of chance meetings in Sex, the fetish-wear boutique run by McLaren (and Vivienne Westwood), and how nearly every gig ended up in chaos.

There are plenty of anecdotes for the fans (like how Lydon got thrown out of school for looking like a hippie, or how Jones ripped off all the band's gear from a David Bowie show), but more importantly, the film does a good job of getting across the band's inflammatory power, in concert and in person.

It's always hard to gauge the historical impact of outrage, but imagine this: After a heated exchange with a rude BBC presenter involving prime-time use of vulgarity, and the release of their savage single "God Save the Queen" (just in time for the Jubilee celebration in '77), the Pistols were literally hiding in fear for their lives. Temple's film amply documents the hysteria, with the media denouncing them as a "greater threat to our way of life than communism"; councilors attacking them ("The whole world would be vastly improved by their total nonexistence"); and skinheads, teddy boys and mainstream rockers assaulting them on sight -- Lydon almost lost a leg in a razor attack. He remains unrepentant, though, saying, "We managed to offend all the people we were f***ing fed up with."

The Sex Pistols were so obnoxious at the time that it comes as a bit of a shock to hear the melancholy tales they tell here, that they were a bunch of poor, ill-formed youths, ripped off by their manager and unable to cope with the wrath that they provoked. It's interesting to hear the men behind the masks, but this also tarnishes the myth slightly. The Sex Pistols are the last band you'd expect to indulge in the sappy nostalgia prone to aging rock bands looking for another lease on life. Surely the young Johnny Rotten would have viewed this film and said with a sneer: "Pop stars have such rough lives -- bollocks!"

"The Filth and the Fury" (Japanese title: "No Future") is playing at Cine Saison Shibuya.

A young person's primer to punks on film
"The Great Rock and Roll Swindle" (director: Julien Temple): A great hoax pulled off by the band's manager Malcolm McLaren, suggesting that the chaos and outrage generated by the band were all part of a devious plan, and that the media, record labels and public were all played for fools. Only true in part -- the Pistols' career was spinning out of control more often than not -- but this makes for a great how-to manual in media manipulation. Also includes the classic Sid Vicious version of "My Way."

"D.O.A." (Lech Kowalski): Documents the Sex Pistols final and disastrous tour through the American South. Highlights include a show in Dallas where Sid Vicious baits the audience ("You cowboys are all a bunch of faggots") only to get a full beer can in the face, and the band's final show in San Francisco, where Lydon literally breaks down on stage. The show ends with a line by Lydon that would become the band's epitaph: "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" "D.O.A." is the quintessential document of the disproportionately violent reactions (both pro and con) punk was able to arouse in the public.

"Rude Boy" (dir. Jack Hazan/David Mingay): A great distillation of the environs and mood of national decline that gave birth to punk. The film focuses on a young punk who becomes a roadie for the Clash, and is eventually dropped by the band for his politically incorrect stance. Lots of great footage of the Clash at their peak, and the Rock Against Racism concerts that brought a political edge to the movement.

"The Decline of Western Civilization" (dir. Penelope Spheeris): This is punk L.A. style, featuring bands like the Germs, Fear and X, who are blisteringly good. A raw document of just how "out there" and dangerous punk seemed at the time -- and an interesting contrast to how slick and formalized it has since become.

"Jubilee" (dir. Derek Jarman): Jarman's mytho-poetic -- or should I say simply "bizarre?" -- take on the punk revolution. Prescient in how it predicts the way the movement would be bought off and commodified. The film's leads include Jordan -- the dominatrix clerk from McLaren's boutique Sex -- and a prefame, very psychotic Adam Ant.

"Sid and Nancy" (dir. Alex Cox): Overly romanticized attempt to mythologize these doomed losers. See "D.O.A." for a glimpse of the real Sid and Nancy: Sid drooling in a drug-induced stupor, Nancy nagging him incessantly. And people still wonder whether he stabbed her . . . (G.F.)

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