Monday, April 23, 2012

The Filth and the Fury (Julien Temple, 2000)

The Filth and the Fury opens with an old BBC weather report announcing incoming rain. The metaphor works two-fold, as a literal announcement of the coming storm that is the Sex Pistols, and as a brief look into the starched public face of Britain that is about to have a safety pin shoved through its nose. Indeed, Julien Temple devotes only a few minutes to establishing the adolescences of the Sex Pistols, instead focusing on the social context of the mid-'70s that allowed the band to rise. A few photographs of young Steve Jones and John Lydon are swiftly drowned out by images of trash piling into mountains in the streets during a years-long garbage strike, of punters standing unaffected by a lump of dead rats large enough to be capybaras.

Temple attempts to capture some of the slapdash energy of the band's actual formation, shoved together by impresario Malcolm McLaren and molded into the perfect embodiment of Thatcherian fury and inchoate aggression. Much of the film's first act, in fact, deals with the group's attempt to bash their way into any semblance of musical competence, archival footage and audio of early performances showing off four individuals with no business standing on a stage slowly building a following off their insane look and crazier live act. As the refuse of Britain's youth slowly trickled into whatever shit hole the Pistols played, a movement starts to form, simultaneously proving the shrewdness of McLaren's fashion marketing and turning into something inadvertently genuine.

The fact that the Pistols still enjoy a mythical aura, with numerous repackagings and releases despite the band's two-year, one-LP duration, speaks to the inexplicable charm of the punk rockers. The world's unlikeliest boy band, the Pistols started as guitarist Steve Jones' effort before McLaren stuck his grimy fingers into everything and ginned up notoriety with a parade of staged stunts that revealed the avaricious, capitalistic impulse underneath this supposed movement of musical and sociopolitical revolution even as the kids' vicious tension with McLaren demonstrated the ongoing struggle with that influence, one that proved victorious in the nihilistic dissolution of the group at their moment of glory.

The Pistols stood for a powerful idea, the notion that, truly, anyone could be in a band. Seriously, these people made the Ramones look like Led Zeppelin. They even canned Glen Matlock, the only one among them who had any idea how to play his instrument, to hire Sid Vicious, a kid who only ever used his bass guitar to smash overeager punters who pushed too close to the stage. One look at these guys, and any excuse someone ever cooked up to avoid starting a band evaporated.

Temple has tried to summarize the Pistols on film before, but like the band members themselves, he found himself swayed and misled by McLaren. His 1980 The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle is a bizarre mockumentary, started in the aftermath of the group's final concert in January 1978 but before it all truly collapsed. Yet the movie clearly bears McLaren's stamp of approval and manipulative hand, and it's notably today mainly for the brazen, self-serving myths conjured by McLaren. The Filth and the Fury seeks to rectify that shambles of a film by presenting the band's side (including Lydon's and Matlock's, both of whom were omitted from Temple's first go-around with the punks). Curiously, Temple frames their talking heads in shadow, masking their faces as they come clean about their brief time together. They look as if they're in witness protection, hiding from what they wrought.

But if the group won't be on camera now, the film certainly doesn't lack for footage of them back in the day. One of the positive side-effects of McLaren's relentless promotion antics is that nothing the Pistols ever did wasn't captured on tape, so all the legendary, press-baiting disasters—the Screen on the Green, the Queen's Jubilee, their horrifically mis-judged U.S. tour that ended with Rotten's departure after the January show in San Francisco—are not only referenced but shown. Temple's use of contemporary pop culture relics, some of which are a direct response by establishment entertainment to the sudden, feared rise of the band, can be invasive and repetitive, but it's amusing and revealing to see the Pistols slowly incorporated as one of those pop culture elements in a manner that both softens them and only makes them more enduringly snarling and unyielding.

Lydon understands this paradoxical space the band occupies, and he expresses an irritation at the way that the Pistols became iconic in the same dehumanizing, de-individualizing way that all the heroes they sought to tear down had been elevated into some pantheon. Their fashion and sound was instantly co-opted into a uniform sort of anti-conformist conformist expression, disillusioning the band so quickly that three months after releasing their debut, they crumbled at that bitter, defeated gig at Winterland. It was the most punk thing they ever did, cutting McLaren's marionette strings and effectively announcing the end of punk as a means of true expression just as it was becoming the rage. The Pistols helped kickstart punk in the U.K., and Lydon himself would help announce the next stage when he put out his first album with post-punk pioneers Public Image Ltd. by 1978's end. Compared to this flame out, the Ramones' own tenure as the leaders of U.S. punk really did seem like the "century" they brought to a close in 1980.

The Filth and the Fury ends with the same abrupt conclusion of is subject, with only a brief coda spared for Sid Vicious' rapid downfall and his wrenching, pathetic demise a year after the Pistols disbanded. Much as Lydon rages in his silhouette throughout the film against McLaren, his bandmates and the fans who ruined what he wanted to be an individual manifesto, it's Sid's downfall that brings out the most acidic venom in the frontman. Filled with loathing for everyone and himself, Lydon mourns his poor fool of a friend and the greedy forces that destroyed him. It only furthers Sid's image as the emblem of punk, but when Lydon loses his composure talking about him, Vicious turns back into the kid who never made it to 22. Lydon will never truly have his friend back, neither literally nor in the sense that Sid now belongs to the movement that killed him, but for one brief moment, even this burned-out immortal is made just an ordinary human being again. But then, that's what ultimately made him a god in the first place.

1 comment:

  1. This is what I think is one of the best documentaries about any group. It allows the Sex Pistols to tell their side of the story while having Malcolm be spoken through a S&M mask. I just loved some of the humor of it as well as the drama that occurs including why the Sex Pistols wrote "God Save the Queen" which I think did go to #1 in the U.K. charts, not Rod Stewart.