The Filth and the Fury

(UK/USA - 2000)

by James Cobo

Cast: John Lydon, Malcolm McLaren, Paul Cook, Steve Jones
Genre: Documentary
Director: Julien Temple
Screenplay: -
Cinematography: -
Composer: John Lydon
Runtime: 108 minutes

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The title of Julian Temple's The Filth and the Fury comes from an outraged London tabloid's headline following the Sex Pistols' infamously profane appearance on Bill Grundy's Today Show, and is proof positive that Temple knew what he was doing when he made the film. From the very outset, The Filth… is hucksterism carried out under the aegis of journalism - an extended infomercial selling the band to a generation largely raised on its descendents. That's not to say that it's not entertaining, because it most certainly is. And it's also not to say that being a commercial precludes artistic merit, because The Filth… is as meritorious as just about any other film to come out in the last two years. It is merely to say that what the film purports to be and what it actually is are two different things entirely.

What the film superficially wants to be is a canonical relating of the story of the Sex Pistols, and in that sense, it is: of the three feature films dedicated to the Sex Pistols, The Filth…is the only one to come from their lips. But if this is Temple's aim, then he undermines the film right out of the gate simply by his presence, as he directed the first of the Sex Pistols' features, 1980's The Great Rock and Roll Swindle. And while he attempts to distance himself from his earlier work by dedicating plenty of time to discrediting Malcolm McLaren, the group's infamous manager and the gospel source for Swindle, his efforts tend to ring truer of backed-up bile coming from the band members than of an earnest attempt to start over.

I think Temple was smart enough to realize it, too; freed from the burden of being the first work to tackle a musical act many call the most socially relevant since the Beatles, he presents the group as a pop culture phenomenon rather than as a weighty, epochal event. He slyly couches their stories in pop culture phenomena - specifically music-related pop culture detritus like the music video or VH1's Behind the Music television series.

Yet in doing so - and herein lies a large part of the film's brilliance - Temple never sacrifices the principles of his subjects for dramatic purposes. Granted, he was blessed with a spectacularly principled group of subjects in the first place, but the Sex Pistols are a band whose short existence can, if examined sabermetrically, be boiled down to a rapid-fire string of moments. Temple avoids this pitfall simply by fleshing out the characters, a rarity in today's entertainment documentaries. I recently watched Nick Broomfield's Kurt and Courtney and was amazed at how cartoonish the principle figures seemed - like day players in the overarching story. The Filth…avoids this entirely; the band members are afforded larger-than-life status, a likely reflection of a real-life infatuation on the part of Temple, and their outrageous excess is balanced by their humanity.

This is unquestionably a nod to Behind the Music. Both film and television show follow the same presentational format: a short introductory portion followed by a linear biography, told by the artists themselves in interviews recorded expressly for the piece in the interest of humanizing the subjects. The difference between the two is the reverence with which they treat their subjects - or rather, the absolute dearth of reverence given to the VH1 subjects. Behind the Music is a killer of myths; it shows former rock gods as human beings, and attempts to argue down their foibles in the court of public appeal. Temple, on the other hand, presents his subjects only as gods, obscuring their faces during the interview portions and only showing them when they were young and vital. (The lone living exception is McLaren, who is presented in an inflated bondage mask in an obvious - and satisfying - attempt to undermine his credibility.) It's a very transparent effect, but a touching one nonetheless.

Yet Temple never fully commits to the format. Obviously aware of the pitfalls of the Behind the Music paradigm, he breaks the flow of the movie up relentlessly. The visual style is essentially collision montage, as editor Niven Howie puts both the Sex Pistols' concert footage and fragments of British television from the 70s as well as representations of the old order and the new order in direct opposition. As a technique, it's less endearing than his shadowing-out of the band members' faces - mostly because it's such a ham-fisted one - but it's very kinetic, and it keeps the film interesting even when the narrative isn't. And besides, it's unfair to compare Howie's use to Vertov's or Eisenstein's; Howie uses the montage as a simple, apolitical inroad to facilitate the audiences' conception of the times. In that sense, it's used almost too well; on occasion, Temple will further distance himself from Behind the Music by inserting what amount to music videos. The most striking of these is the centerpiece of the entire film, a harrowing visual rendition of "God Save the Queen". It's frankly too perfect; the vehement anger of the music matches up so well with the energy of the montage that it becomes political, and the hands-off energy simply wasn't enough to hold my interest for a subsequent section.

The ultimate effect of The Filth…, of course, is that the Sex Pistols appear more relevant to today's music. What's interesting is that at the same time as his attempts to update a band from the 1970s by presenting them in the form of music videos or contemporary television programs, Temple tries to present his subjects as timeless. Throughout The Filth…clips of Shakespearian movies are shown, primarily of Richard III and Hamlet with classical British actors. At some points, Temple abandons all pretense of separation and explicitly connects the band members to Shakespearian texts, either by John Lydon - nee Rotten - comparing himself to Richard III or the Hunchback of Notre Dame or by replacing Lawrence Olivier's "Yorick" with Steve Jones' "Wally", in reference to Wally Nightingale, an early member of the band kicked out at the behest of McLaren in favor of Rotten. And while moments like these aren't nearly as visceral as the "God Save the Queen" montage, I think they illuminate the appeal of the film much, much better in the long run.

The great irony surrounding the Sex Pistols is the inherent duplicity in their forthrightness. The catalyst for the band's profanity-laden tirade on the Today Show, after all, was their breezy admission of materialism; Grundy asked what they did with the money advanced to them by their record company, Rotten responded "We fucking spent it", and the ball was set rolling - their viability as a commercial entity assured by the reverse-psychological, completely honest admission to the affirmative. And while The Filth…touches on this aspect of the band, giving Rotten a chance to hurl invective at the punks who ruined punk, it never really tackles it fully, and in doing so, misses the point of the band.

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But I'm fully willing to give Temple the benefit of the doubt on this one, because in effect, by missing the point, he validated the myth of the Pistols. The climax of the film is the famous "No Fun" concert in San Francisco, where the band played one song - a cover of the Stooges' "No Fun" and then walked off the stage ostensibly forever, their lingering goodbye a taunting "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" from Rotten. And yet it's the most visceral segment of the movie after the "God Save the Queen" video; the image of Rotten howling "No fun to be around" - which Temple then juxtaposes with the end of bassist Sid Vicious and girlfriend Nancy Spungen - is compelling on such an honest gut level that the audience - me, anyway - is tricked into buying into the spectacle of the whole thing.

The rap on the Sex Pistols has always been that they were more about style than substance, and in a way, The Filth…validates that assertion (McLaren's discussion about how he assembled the band is particularly effective here). The value of the film, however, is in reassuring the audience that that's fine, because of how substantial that style really was. Everything about The Filth… is presented in such a style-intensive way that it mirrors the band's appeal, and it's presented in such a focused, unabashed way that denying it simply on the basis of emptiness is missing the forest for the trees. I call the film a commercial because that's simply what it is - not a commercial for anything specific, just for the concept of the Sex Pistols in general. At its most basic, of course, the film functions just like the band's songs - as throwaway pop culture detritus, and high-quality detritus at that. Yet in doing so, the film unwittingly aspires to do the same things as its subjects, and as a result guarantees its usefulness for as long as its subjects are relevant. Given the extraordinary magnitude of the subjects in question, that's no small feat.



* Copyright 2002 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *