The Filth and the Fury

Friday April 14, 2000

     Though the group lasted only 26 months, produced but a single record album and broke up more than two decades ago, the Sex Pistols continue to fascinate. Maybe they're just a blip on the rock 'n' roll/popular culture landscape, but they are a significant blip, and one that just won't go away.
     That's because, like a jar of snake venom, the Sex Pistols represent the concentrated essence of the rebelliousness and rage that have always been one of rock's key components. Outlandish, crude, raw but honest, the Pistols in their late-1970s prime spewed forth almost primal hostility in once-heard never-forgotten songs like "Anarchy in the UK," "Pretty Vacant," "EMI" (a savage attack on the recording giant for dropping them) and the anti-anthem "God Save the Queen."
     One of the earliest of the punk bands, the Pistols managed to offend nearly all the people nearly all the time. A London politician, typical of many, called the group "the antithesis of humankind" and hypothesized that "the whole world will be better for their nonexistence."
     Given that this was one of the most fed-up bands of all time, that dissolution was predictably not long in coming. Its four members, including vocalist Johnny Rotten, bass player Sid Vicious, guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook, didn't much like anyone, least of all one another. The group's demise has the makings of a cautionary tale, but--as detailed in Julien Temple's intriguing new documentary, "The Filth and the Fury," a film as arresting and at times as frustrating as the Pistols themselves--it's hard to say what it's supposed to caution us about.
     Temple, a British director with credits including "Absolute Beginners" and "Earth Girls Are Easy," is no newcomer to the Sex Pistols arena. His 1980 documentary, "The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle," was an earlier look at the phenomenon, told largely from the point of view of the group's former manager Malcolm McLaren.
     Now Temple is back, offering not only the best of some 20 hours of early Pistols footage recently discovered in an English storage facility, but also a more balanced portrait as well, one that takes into account the point of view of the band, especially lead singer Rotten.
     "The Filth and the Fury" (the title comes from a Daily Mail headline describing the reaction to one of the group's chaotic early BBC appearances) also takes pains to set the group in the context of Britain in a time of working-class discontent and disconnection, when social upheaval was a frequent answer to the rigid stratification of the British system.
     No one was more angry than the Pistols, initially masterminded by hipster McLaren ("he used people like an artist," is one of the milder comments about him) but soon being driven by the anarchic anger of Rotten (real name John Lydon), whose very first lyric line for the band was "I am an anti-Christer."
     As brief as the Pistols' career was, words like that and antics to match contributed to the group's frequent change of labels in a still-conservative Britain. The only section of society that secretly loved the band from beginning to end was the media: More newspapers were sold about the Pistols' antics than about the Armistice that had ended World War II.
     A group whose members got truly, deeply sick of one another wasn't destined to spend decades together (Rotten and Jones in particular didn't get along). The presence of Sid Vicious, a bass player who couldn't play bass, didn't help. His thralldom to both hard drugs and Nancy Spungen, an American groupie with an unpopular personality, though it briefly united the group in distaste, ultimately hastened their demise.
     Temple certainly knows this material well, perhaps too well, and the very U.K. parts of the film, like a montage of unidentified British TV and music hall comics of the Benny Hill variety, will mystify local audiences. Some of his stylistic touches, like intercutting scenes of Laurence Olivier's dazzling "Richard III," are successful, while others, like filming the band members today with their faces totally hidden (apparently so we won't see how they've aged), are continually irritating. We probably shouldn't expect a completely conventional documentary about a group this lawless, but there are moments when you wish we'd gotten one anyway.


The Filth and the Fury, 2000. R, for pervasive strong language, drugs and sexual content. In association with the Sex Pistols and Filmfour, a Jersey Shore/Nitrate Film production, released by Fine Line Features. Director Julien Temple. Producers Anita Camarata, Amanda Temple. Executive producers Eric Gardner, Jonathan Weisgal. Editor Niven Howie. Music the Sex Pistols. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.

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