Film Reviews

The Filth and The Fury Julien Temple

Rating - 8/10

Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?

Johnny Rotten’s immortal parting words to the audience at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom in January, 1978 have come to surmise the collapse of an entire era. Feeling bitter and confused, The Sex Pistols frontman closed the Pistols' final set by bellowing out an aching rendition of The Stooges “No Fun” filled with disdain, anger and dejection. For Rotten it was all clear. His band was in turmoil. Penniless and splintered, The Sex Pistols had undergone a meteoric rise that saw the band energize the punk movement in the UK, sign to three different record labels, become public enemies and record a disputed chart-topper; only to immolate at the end of their first American tour.    

At its onset, punk was supposed to represent as a retort to the establishment. Barely thirteen months after Johnny Rotten departed the Winterland stage, punk in its original form had almost disappeared from the musical landscape. By mid-1979, Rotten had reverted to his given name John Lydon as the frontman for post-punk pioneers Public Image Ltd; Sex Pistols’ bassist Sid Vicious was dead; The Clash were preparing a double album; and most of what remained of the punk ethos had regressed into a cartoonish, hyper-aggressive world of conformism and commercialism. 
This shifting dynamic becomes the backdrop to Julien Temple’s 2000 documentary The Filth and The Fury. Charting The Sex Pistols spectacular rise, decline and fall, Temple’s film is a model of control. Starting from The Sex Pistols’ humble beginnings in working-class London and closing with the infamous Winterland performance, The Filth and The Fury is an act of artistic correction on Temple’s part.
In 1980, Temple directed The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, the first Sex Pistols’ “documentary;" a film which presented the band’s limited history from the perspective of the band’s manager Malcolm McLaren. According to McLaren, the band were merely puppets assembled to enact his adherence to the principles of the anarcho-artistic group The Situationist International. Temple’s penance, The Filth and The Fury is therefore both a rebuttal to McLaren’s purpoted revisionism and an opportunity to establish a counter-history of The Sex Pistols steeped in the politics and cultural mores of the era.
From the opening credits, Temple affords the film a highly inventive and subversive visual look that is keenly indebted to the punk aesthetic. Concert footage and archival interviews are chopped up alongside period news broadcasts, comedy programs, elements of The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, portions of Olivier’s Richard III and new interviews with the band’s surviving members. Packaged as The Sex Pistols story in their own words, the film begins by stressing both the band’s working-class roots and the unraveling socio-political milieu of 1970’s Britain.
No longer ruling the seas, let alone the world, Britain’s postwar multicultural society had slipped into a post-industrial conundrum. Unemployment was rife, strikes were commonplace and racism had continually reared its ugly face in public. Seemingly, The Sex Pistols arrived in an impressionable and pliable setting. According to The Sex Pistols, this combination of public social turmoil and personal impoverishment provided the band with the ammunition required to venomously admonish Britain’s cultural and political institutions.
The first third of The Filth and The Fury, Temple continually returns to the socio-cultural chaos of the era as a thematic starting point for the Pistols emergence. Certainly, this social determinist account has credence. The Sex Pistols surfaced during an era of massive youth discontent highlighted by a bitterness from glam-addled youngsters toward their elders who kept “England dreaming” of an extinct empire; people still clinging on to the yellowed remnants of its memories despite their being in Rotten's words “no future.”
Nevertheless, another dark specter looms on the peripheral shadows of Temple’s film. This one contoured to the curly-haired silhouette of the band’s former manager Malcolm McLaren. Ay, but here’s the rub. Without McLaren there is no Sex Pistols. Period. After all, the band essentially was formed at Sex, McLaren’s King’s Road shop in London’s Chelsea district. Original bassist Glen Matlock was a store employee. Johnny Rotten auditioned using the store’s jukebox. Yet, McLaren’s input in The Filth and The Fury is perfunctory; limited to an archival voiceover filtered through a rubber mask.
Clearly, the band feel McLaren has already had his say with The Great Rock and Roll Swindle and are having Temple return the favor. And while The Filth and The Fury is subsequently an incomplete rendering of The Sex Pistols story for that reason, McLaren’s overt absence does not wholly diminish the film. If anything, it is perhaps even more discerning to any viewer familiar with punk and post-punk music, how constricted Temple’s vision is to the Pistols’ mythology.
Shot amongst the shadows, the faces of the surviving members of the Sex Pistols are never seen; as though Temple is preserving his subjects within the tenets of their youthful iconographic imagery. This angle is further re-enforced by the lack of de-mythologizing involved in Temple’s film. There's scant discussion of other bands during the era. Unlike what he later told the BBC, we don’t hear Glen Matlock inform us how the opening notes to “Pretty Vacant” sound surprisingly akin to the introductory bars of ABBA’s hit “S.O.S.” Nor, do we hear Lydon wax lyrical about his adoration for Krautrock idols CAN or prog-rockers Van de Graaf Generator; or the amusing post-Pistols anecdote related in Simon Reynolds' seminal post-punk monograph Rip It Up and Start Again regarding Virgin CEO Richard Branson's failed attempt to persuade Lydon to front Devo.
No, what Temple offers here is a carefully managed, well-crafted documentary that performs its tasks for a select target audience: the type of people who has always viewed The Sex Pistols filtered through the imagery and the mythology. That’s not to say Temple’s film is a sullying slice of pop-propaganda. On the contrary, The Filth and The Fury is one of the most wildly entertaining, funny and at times touching documentaries of the decade.
Along the way, we are supplied with visual accounts of all the key stepping stones in the Pistols’ limited history- Screen on the Green, Grundy, the Jubilee concert on the Thames, Winterland- but these aren’t the factors which truly distinguish Temple’s film. What truly drives Temple’s film is the spectacle of it all. Whether it was through McLaren’s baiting, the tabloid media or a combination of both, The Sex Pistols rapidly became the victims of their own infamy.
Band members were attacked, record contracts were cancelled and concerts were shut down. Even the band’s own fans began to simply regurgitate punk etiquette at The Sex Pistols' ephemeral concerts. Without money or security, the band members speak of dissension in the ranks and having to fend for themselves, whilst McLaren, the ringmaster of this media circus, spent what little cash the band raked in on failed side-projects; such as the never-finished Sex Pistols film Who Killed Bambi?, for which Temple provides some uproariously bad footage involving future Police frontman Sting.
And then at the behest of Rotten came along Sid to replace Beatles’ fan Matlock. Temple’s treatment of Sid Vicious in The Filth and The Fury is fascinating. He isn’t glorified nor symbolized as the movement’s martyr, but rather is presented as a particularly unlikeable individual: a comic strip caricature of a punk rocker. Despite being his best friend, even Rotten gratefully fails to deify him either.
Instead, he is projected as a troubled figure, an inept musician and a junkie; someone who simply should never have been brought along. It is on the subject of Sid Vicious that we do witness cracks in the monitored visage. We hear the emotion, the guilt, the pain and the regret in Rotten’s voice. It is the film’s most touching moment and fittingly exemplifies the sour taste much of The Sex Pistols experience has left in Rotten’s mouth.
Despite its carefully managed outlook, The Filth and The Fury is one of the most imaginative and enjoyable documentaries produced this decade. Like Paul Justman’s Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Temple’s film crafts an alternative narrative through the eyes of its participants. Subsequently, there are no talking heads or music writers, such as the era’s pre-eminent British music writer Charles Shaar-Murray, to provide further input and fill-in the gaps. Although this has its drawbacks in terms of inserting The Sex Pistols within a socio-cultural historical context, it does not denigrate the spirit of the picture. And while Temple’s overall scope could be larger, there is enough anarchic imagery and anecdotes here to satisfy neophytes and admirers alike.