Future extraterrestrial excavators of our doomed civilization will no doubt marvel that the three best bands in the form known as rock music--R.I.P.--were memorialized by three of the best examples of the generally hopeless genre known as rock movies. The Beatles of course got A Hard Day's Night (1964), the Rolling Stones Gimme Shelter (1970), the Sex Pistols The Great Rock and Roll Swindle (1980), all other movies of said bands being, in essence, tagalongs.
Such is patently the case with The Filth and the Fury, a new Sex Pistols documentary that's been getting overpraised because 1) it's fun and full of good music, and 2) this is the dismal season for movies when critics desperately seize upon anything with a little juice to it. Filth was assembled (much of it from previously unseen material) by Julien Temple, an early Sex Pistols fan who filmed the band regularly during its existence and, as his first feature, mounted the much superior and more important Swindle. That film, which was as much a pie-in-the-face cinematically as the Pistols were culturally, painted the band as the invention of its outlandish manager, Malcolm McLaren. The new version aims to "set the record straight," in the band's favor. Like most revisionism it is overly earnest and, when all's said and done, a wee bit pathetic.
You will understand that I don't give a fig for the truth per se concerning the Sex Pistols: what John said to Steve in July of '76 or who in fact gave Sid Vicious his illustrious moniker. Facts are for real documentaries. As those alien excavators will surely discover, rock music was never about anyone's reality but about mythic responses to same, and any filmmaker making a movie about rock is doing only one of two things: translating the myth into another medium (e.g., the three films named in the first paragraph) or deflating it (Spinal Tap). The filmmaker's primary relationship, like the fans', is not to the music's "facts" but to its mythology.
In that sense, Swindle got it right. Slapdash, at once self-puncturing and shrewdly self-serving, filled with fakey skits and rollicking satiric cartoons (these are incorporated into the new film without any acknowledgement of their provenance), the first Pistols movie proved the band's seriousness by so effectively and ingeniously denying it. It posed the group as cunning buffoons rather than hipster avatars, money-grabbing opportunists rather than artists, and purveyors of fraud rather than purposeful anarchists--an extraordinary way of signaling their real claims and import while eluding the snares of the commercial machinery that, as Pistols myth aptly saw it, had virtually asphyxiated rock.
This mocking, anti-mythic myth was the last real effort made to free the rock fan from his most addictive and wasteful drug: hero worship. It didn't work, needless to say, but there was an extreme, strangely ascetic beauty to the attempt. As with the Beatles and Brian Epstein, the cultural landslide triggered by the Pistols was primarily one of style, the conceptualization and practical launching of which had lots to do with their ingenious manager. (McLaren supplied the name Sex Pistols and with his wife, designer Vivienne Westwood, concocted the punk look from the bins of their Kings Road sex shop.) But Swindle's vaunting of McLaren as the Pistols' cackling Svengali was mainly a further attempt to subvert mindless band adoration by playing to a favorite old-fart chestnut: that the artists had nothing to do it, that it was all a greedy manager's way of conning the trusting public and upstanding music industry.
This witty charade was another inspired way of keeping the truth from the squares--who today, alas, seem to include the surviving Pistols. OK, sure. You can understand Rotten's mounting-over-the-decades irritation not only that McLaren was given such credit, but also that the manager's subversive art project apparently included the destruction of the band he helped create. Yet present-day Johnny, who lives in Malibu and has a show on VH-1, comes across not as clever but as peevish, petty and middle-aged cranky in trying to counter the incandescent situationist poetry of the McLaren-era Pistols, including Swindle, with the footnotes and flat prose of "the band's version." Inadvertently, surely, this almost makes it seem that the genius of the original animal was McLaren's.
Filth starts out wallowing in the sorriest sludge of all, sociology. It portrays the Pistols as a product of the blighted and bitter England of the mid-'70s. True enough, perhaps, but so flippin' what? Tell it to PBS. In happy contrast, easily the smartest and most valuable thing about the new film is the way it incorporates footage of Laurence Olivier in Richard III (a major role model for Rotten, according to him) and comedians like Benny Hill as a way of acknowledging that the Pistols' real roots weren't in Gene Vincentland but in English theater, music-hall and electronic japery. They were Monty Pythons from Yobsville rather than Oxbridge.
Which isn't to underplay the more obvious points: that the power and the glory of the Pistols' music was indeed epochal, thunderously transcending as well as deftly supporting the shtick; and that the whole effect was keyed to the reptilian charisma of Rotten's acerbic persona, for which he and he alone deserves credit. Still, as much as Filth fills in the blanks regarding the band's meteoric career, it's stinting and at times disingenuously opaque about the music's development, especially where fired bassist Glen Matlock's contributions are concerned. The surviving Pistols, incidentally, refused to be interviewed together. And for vanity's sake, it seems, they were filmed in silhouette, disguising middle age's bloating besmirchment of youthful images. (The movie also incorporates big chunks of a Sid Vicious interview filmed a year before his death.)
Naïve fans, especially those outside Britain, may think the Pistols represented some kind of threat to "the establishment," but Filth provides ample reminders that they were made famous and endlessly used by Britain's gutter press, which plays to a level of mental squalor and petit-bourgeois hypocrisy that's perhaps unique in the world. In any case, their "threat" was as quickly domesticated as the Rolling Stones' had been a decade earlier. The most touching passage in the movie recounts the time, almost at the end of their career, when the Pistols found themselves playing a charity event for safety-pinned kids and firemen in the middle of England. Here, for a brief and glowing moment, they were what the world seldom allowed them to be: great entertainers, making ordinary folk happy.
That they self-destructed in the United States, at the end of their first American tour, was perhaps inevitable given that Americans "got" British punk to about the same extent that white people got the blues. Even in England, as the film shows, punk followed the usual trajectory, first being embraced by a coterie that shared the same reference points and sense of humor, then being invaded by the media-fed world at large, dull-witted and uncool. But America was worse than uncool; it was virtually toxic. First, New York Dolls' groupie Nancy Spungen sweeps in and gets sweet, dim Sid Vicious (the band's number one fan, who was recruited as a member because of his beauty) addicted to heroin. Then, the Pistols go off to the United States and discover longhairs in cowboy hats, who throw broken bottles because they think punk--rather than America--is about violence.
As has been observed, rock 'n' roll was American; rock, Anglo-American. And the latter entailed both catalytic glories and inevitable tragedies due to a fundamental difference that, pace Oscar Wilde, is as insuperable as a shared language: Where British pop music revels in artifice, America's eternally seeks authenticity. In American terms, Filth--with its Malibu, VH-1 Johnny--giving us the "real" Sex Pistols makes perfect sense. In the original, British understanding, the same notion is self-contradictory, at once an absurdity and a desecration. As McLaren understood, the Pistols' importance was (and is) entirely bound up with their fraudulence. Documenting them as a mere "great band," as Filth does, has its uses and fascinations, but it also can't help leaving them looking smaller and sadder than before, composed of past-tense facts rather than the incendiary, ever-transfixing myth.