Director Julien Temple's 1980 film The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle was told from Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren's point of view regarding a group he claimed to have solely created. Part Svengali, part circus ringmaster, McLaren sought to convince viewers that the band and punk rock culture in general was orchestrated by him in a singular scheme to get rich. Two decades later, Temple's The Filth and the Fury gives the Pistols their say on the band's 26-month career, resulting in a superior documentary and a more rational take on the events that helped shape (and taint) modern music.
Temple's approach is much more stylized than in Swindle. Along with the usual staples of concert videos and press interviews, The Filth and the Fury is a collage of stock footage, animation, home movies, media gang-bangs, and historic BBC broadcasts that are mixed in to ground the film in a particular time and place. For example, Temple repeatedly cuts back to scenes from Laurence Olivier's 1954 Technicolor version of Richard III -- the comparison between the twisted hunchbacked king and vocalist Rotten (so nicknamed because of the condition of his teeth) is pointed. Most interesting is that the director films all the modern interviews of surviving Pistols (Rotten, guitarist Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook, and original bassist Glen Matlock) with the members' faces in shadows like whistle-blowers on a 60 Minutes episode. This has a twofold effect: It offers no current visual reference of the band members (thus, the audience is forced to picture them only as young and livid in the '70s), and it gives a certain everyman quality to their remarks. Interestingly, McLaren speaks only from behind a black rubber fetish mask, like the kind he sold at his London bondage boutique when he first met the band.
Unlike most rock documentaries that rely on abundant concert imagery and studio outtakes, Filth is less concerned with the music than the setting that produced it. Because it is a linear chronology of events, Temple doesn't even introduce the Pistols' songs onto the soundtrack until the band is shown having formed, about a half-hour into the film. Thus, music the group was exposed to -- by the likes of The Who, David Bowie, and Alice Cooper (Rotten first auditioned for the band by singing "I'm Eighteen" along with a jukebox) -- is what underscores the picture's initial events.
The difference between The Sex Pistols and all the other "bad boy" bands that achieved notoriety up to that point is that most people didn't judge Rotten and his mates as a musical act. They weren't over-the-top theatrical cultists like Kiss or doped-up potty mouths like The Doors; the Pistols were a genuine threat to the "British way of life." As a result, the reaction to them far over-reached what most musical groups deserve. "The whole world would be vastly improved by their total and utter nonexistence" is how Bernard Brook Partridge, a London Councilor, summed up the public's stance during a TV interview. (The Filth and the Fury gets its title from a Daily Mirror headline following the band's disastrous appearance on London's Today Programme, where drunken host Bill Grundy smugly asked them to "say something outrageous." The band obliged with expletives never before heard on prime-time British television.)
The band's behavior led to the usual picketings by citizens groups but also made it nearly impossible for the act to find a place to play. Despite their popularity, the Pistols were treated like lepers by club owners, promoters, and insurance companies -- who refused coverage in anticipation of rioting -- and had to resort to touring under a pseudonym.
This disdain for the band came from the record industry as well. The Pistols went through three labels before settling on Virgin Records (McLaren, of course, collected a buyout fee during each shuffle). When the quartet's classic single "God Save the Queen" was released, the BBC banned it. When it went to number one anyway, the slot was left blank rather than admitting which artist occupied the top position.
Somewhat unexpectedly, it wasn't Britain that killed The Sex Pistols, it was America. The group's only stateside tour led to a further division in the band between Rotten/Vicious and Jones/Cook (who sided with McLaren). Temple keeps the infighting to a minimum, as there is little footage to support it, other than the remembrances of the silhouetted figures. But the damage is clearly apparent, leading to the band's infamous final gig at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom, when Rotten asked the audience, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" all while the rhythm section infuriatingly repeated a distorted riff that was literally going nowhere.
But maybe it wasn't so much America as it was an American that caused the group's painful demise. You can feel your testicles starting to retract into your torso when Nancy Spungen is introduced. The former hooker and full-time junkie latched on to Vicious as his "girlfriend" in a manner that made Yoko Ono look like Mother Teresa. Rotten says of the cloying American groupie, "I could take on England, but I couldn't take on one heroin junkie."
Though there is only a cursory look at the couple's relationship (you can always rent Sid & Nancy for a more cinematic in-depth account), the documentary does include a priceless scene of a reporter interviewing Vicious. Drugged and nearly comatose, Vicious responded to questions while falling asleep in mid-answer, only to be awakened by Spungen's shrill prodding ("You're not talking intelligibly. You're falling asleep with your sunglasses on. Wake the fuck up!"). Of course, not so hilariously, Spungen was eventually found stabbed to death, and the lone suspect, Vicious, died of an overdose while awaiting trial in 1979.
It has always been easy to dismiss Vicious and company as caricatures, until a scene near the end of the film where Rotten breaks down crying while explaining his feelings about his bandmate's demise. Here the utter waste of a life, one in which the victim seemed to be an oblivious pawn to the circumstances surrounding him, takes on a greater tragedy -- one worthy of the many cut-ins of Richard III. When a battered Vicious revealed to Temple in a previously unseen 1978 interview, "I don't want to be a junkie for the rest of my life. I don't want to be a junkie at all," you can't help but believe him.
It's this layer of depth that elevates the film from a "look how shocking we were" account to a genuine essay on an ill-fated series of events. "Only the fakes survive," Rotten gives as the explanation for his band's burning out so quickly. But The Sex Pistols and The Filth and the Fury are sure to endure as a most vivid example of cultural reality.