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The Boston Phoenix It's No "Swindle"

In Julien Temple's "The Filth and the Fury,"The Sex Pistols make history

By Jon Garelick

APRIL 24, 2000:  From a distance, across a patch of lawn, we see a man emerge awkwardly through a narrow window of an apartment complex, one leg at a time. He sets himself on the lawn and comes charging at the camera, a healthy paunch on him, collared shirt, porridge-colored cheap cotton crew-neck sweater, his big shock of gray hair flying. Behind him we see a bobby following out the window, blue helmet on his head. There's a quick cutaway, mountains of bursting garbage bags. Back to the man, angry, yelling at someone off camera, something unintelligible and then, "I'll break your fucking jaw!" And then an English-accented voiceover, smooth as Alistair Cooke but with a bit of cockney: "That man is sad." The soft swell of orchestral pomp on the soundtrack now, strings and brass, with a touch of martial drums. "Because he's misinformed," says the voice, "and misled, and he's been used." The angry man is swearing: "Yes, I'm a racist! But why? This government [a shot of Liberal Prime Minister Harold Wilson], the Conservatives [Thatcher], and every stinking councilor who sticks up for the nigger! And I'll stand by my words. Because I don't like these people [two black women pass by from the left-hand corner of the screen and cross quickly on the sidewalk in front of the man] and never will do!"

It's England, 1976, and the Sex Pistols have just been born.

Punk has always been rooted in time and place, even in neighborhoods -- the New York Dolls and the Voidoids on New York's Lower East Side, X in Los Angeles, the Minutemen in San Pedro, the Replacements in Minneapolis, the Real Kids and Human Sexual Response in Boston, Nirvana in Seattle, Green Day from the East Bay. But as a band's audience grows beyond that original scene, the band are soon detached from it, floating in an aspic of fame -- disembodied, of the moment.

The Sex Pistols have long since drifted free of the recession-crushed England and bohemian fringe World's End neighborhood of London where they came together. Julien Temple's The Filth and the Fury brings them back to the particulars of their time and place and, in the process, reclaims their universality. Its first 10 minutes are a rush of mixed newsreel, TV, and advertising footage of the period, an exhilarating collage of bombed-out residential towers, ceremonial pomp, heaps of trash, formations of bobbies charging rock-throwing crowds, TV fashion adverts. In the voiceover, Johnny Rotten and Steve Jones tell the story of the times with concision and wit. "The Labor party had promised so much after the war and had done so little for the working class," says Rotten, "that the working class were confused about even themselves. They didn't even understand what working class meant."

"Everyone was on the dole," says Jones. "If you weren't born into money, you could kiss your life goodbye." Rotten adds, "You were told at school, at the job center, you were told by everyone, that you don't stand a chance and you should just accept your lot and get on with it."

Those expecting a concert film from The Filth and the Fury could be disappointed, but I doubt it. There's plenty of performance footage, and the sound is beautifully edited -- you can read every syllable of Rotten's razor-slice diction on his lips. It still sounds like a mix of live sound and post-synching from the records, and I'm not sure any of the songs is performed in its entirety. But (and I didn't see the band in their original incarnation) the Sex Pistols' music has never been as alive for me as it was in this film.

Working here with editor Niven Howie, Julien Temple (he directed the 1980 Sex Pistols film The Great Rock and Roll Swindle) creates a rich narrative texture full of movement and color, making points in a flash and moving on. The punk scene, English comedy bits, Laurence Olivier's Richard III (a key influence on the Rotten style), Queen Elizabeth, a flash of Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath conducting an orchestra in his shirtsleeves so that he looks like a madman -- the editing has the effect of the collage style that informed the cut-ups of English punk fashion and Sex Pistols record sleeves and handbills. Music videos have this kind of speed, but MTV cuts are too arbitrary -- disembodied gestures existing in a neverland of no time. Temple and Howie weave a narrative of lived time, and living history, Claire Bloom's Lady Anne spitting in the eye of Olivier's Richard as Sid spits in the camera eye -- and a sea of spit and spieling, spritzing English comedies douses the screen.

Those bits play like a counterpoint of English history to the Sex Pistols' story -- an array of historical moments, of British social types dramatizing class antagonism. "I would ask questions outright," Rotten recalls of his school years, "and you're not supposed to do that. You're just supposed to accept: it's Shakespeare, it's great, you're not. . . . I knew we were being fobbed off and given a shoddy, third-rate version of reality, so you wouldn't be capable of questioning your future -- because you didn't have one."

When Rotten finds himself as a young man in the semi-fashionable King's Road neighborhood, he's resentful of all the characters in their "flares and platform shoes and neat coiffures and pretending that the world wasn't really happening." Garbage strikes had been going on for years, the trash piled 10 feet high. "They seemed to have missed that," Rotten says of his contemporaries.

Rotten's something of a parody these days when he appears on talk shows or Politically Incorrect, like a former beauty queen who doesn't realize he's not the belle of the ball anymore (he could be making a witty comeback on VH-1's Rotten TV). But in The Filth in the Fury, he's beautiful again -- a delicate, pretty face, spewing venom in his song lyrics, or depicted in silhouette in contemporary interview footage, as he spins off casual, wry commentary. "Steve had a perm," he says laconically as we look at a picture of the neatly coiffed Jones. "Unfortunately it became permanent."

In the movie, Rotten becomes the color commentator on English class warfare. When the Pistols make their infamous appearance on Thames TV's Today Programme, palpably drunk, and host Bill Grundy (also drunk) makes a pass at Siouxsie Sioux (then part of the Pistols entourage), Jones drawls, "You dirty fucker." Rotten comments: "Steve completely understood that he was talking to a drunk. And he talked to him as you would to a drunk in a pub. And he just topped him."

It's that appearance -- which in today's context looks rather silly and harmless -- that set off the first furor of headlines (one of which became the film's title) and earned the band the everlasting love of the Fleet Street tabloids for "selling more papers than the Armistice." The single "God Save the Queen" follows, recorded for the Queen's jubilee year (1977), the song that, as the novelist Leonard Michaels once wrote, gave an entire country a nervous breakdown ("If they'd hung us at Traitors' Gate, it would have been applauded by 56 million," says Rotten). Pistols gigs were banned, and when they resumed, audiences came expecting the band to vomit or defecate on stage, or at the very least kill one another.

After these revelatory passages (a familiar story made new), the film's second half stumbles occasionally into slow passages of a Behind the Music soap opera: the internecine squabbles, the replacement of bassist and songwriter Glen Matlock with talentless Pistols fan and Johnny Rotten pal Sid Vicious, the continual manipulation by manager/boutique owner Malcolm McLaren. McLaren earns every bit of the band's scorn here -- he's shown in '70s footage in his King's Road shop Sex, speaking from within an inflated rubber mask. An art-school dropout and self-styled cultural revolutionary, he calls the band "my painting, my sculpture, my little Artful Dodgers."

But there are great moments in the film's second half too -- especially when the band play a fundraiser for the children of striking firemen. The kids smear Rotten's head with his own birthday cake, and they dance happily as he tears into the opening lines of "Bodies": "She was a girl from Birmingham/She just had an abortion!"

You can argue that music is always political, but it's not easy deriving a political agenda from music. The second line John Lydon wrote as Johnny Rotten was "I am an anarchist." Maybe, maybe not. The Sex Pistols left behind more history than music, Greil Marcus famously wrote after their last concert. Their one undeniable legacy is a single album of a dozen songs. Twelve songs that shook the world.

Making Filth

For those who know director Julien Temple's previous Sex Pistols film, 1980's The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, The Filth and the Fury will be a surprising retelling -- it even uses some of the footage from the earlier movie. Swindle was a patchwork parody, "narrated" by Malcolm McLaren as the tale of how he devised the band's success, and including the notorious clip of Sid Vicious's performance of "My Way." Filth is being presented as the band's side of the story, but Temple -- who also directed the David Bowie vehicle Absolute Beginners (1986), Earth Girls Are Easy (1989), and the recent Pandemonium for BBC television starring Robert Carlyle as poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge -- doesn't disavow the first effort. "That film was done at a different time, for a different purpose. We did it in the aftermath of the band, when kids were worshipping them the way they had the Bay City Rollers. So the purpose of The Great Rock and Roll Swindle was to debunk all that, to shock and play a Godardian joke, to puncture that aura of pop divinity. The Filth and the Fury is a complement to that."

Of Filth, which includes archival footage he shot during the band's heyday as well as his own collection of TV videotape, Temple says, "It's as much about the difference between that time and this as it is about the band," and that it's also about the "backbreaking lack of opportunities that defined the anger and raw desperation" of young people in mid-'70s England. When the band came to America, audiences responded with a different attitude. "It was a freak show," Temple explains. "The meaning of the Sex Pistols was lost for 10 years. In the States, it didn't come out until years later, and the result was grunge and Kurt Cobain. Now it's very real, and you can see it in films like American Beauty, where the subject of viciously alienated youth is being dealt with in a Hollywood film."

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