"The Filth and the Fury"

The Sex Pistols couldn't find enough treasure in their vaults. Plus: A second documentary that doesn't reduce punk to a slogan.

By Jeff Stark

Published April 26, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

"The Filth and the Fury"
Directed by Julien Temple
Starring John Lydon, Sid Vicious, Steve Jones, Paul Cook, Glen Matlock
Warner Home Video; widescreen letterbox (1.85:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Director commentary, "Un-defining Punk" documentary

As rock 'n' roll rolls closer and closer to meaningless irrelevance, it has become more and more important to tell its story, over and over again. "The Filth and the Fury" is another tale about British punk band the Sex Pistols. Julien Temple's documentary, released in 2000, offers the band's point of view.

The film intercuts documentary footage about the Sex Pistols with news clips and TV detritus from the mid-'70s, attempting to contextualize the band. The Sex Pistols -- and punk -- have always been thought of as a reaction toward froufrou pop groups and bloated classic rock, but this film reminds that the band, and particularly Johnny Rotten, were also responding to social and economic conditions. "When you feel powerless you will grab any sort of power you can," he says.

He's right, of course, but all this political nonsense also serves another purpose. With this film -- essentially propaganda for the band members made by a grown-up fan boy -- the Sex Pistols are trying to divorce themselves from Malcolm McLaren, the group's manager and puppet master, who was just trying to create as much sensation as possible. McLaren has very little to say in the film; he wasn't interviewed especially for it. Instead, the band responds to old quotes from him (he calls them "My little Artful Dodgers") and what passes for the established legacy of the band. "You don't create me," says Rotten at one point.

Some of the old footage is terrific, in particular the early punk scene crowd shots and everything that captures Rotten's piercing eyes and unhinged stage presence. Unfortunately, most of the old concert footage is dubbed with album tracks. That establishes a weird disconnect with the sound that plays throughout the DVD, where both the music and the dialogue seem poorly recorded and slightly off from the images. For a rock documentary, its inattention is nearly disgraceful.

Temple's commentary answers many questions about the film. He used a lot of the stock footage and clips from "The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle" because the vault of old Pistols footage wasn't as rich as he expected. The clips of old British television comedians were there to help explain how much of the Pistols was a joke -- and where Rotten found several of his stage moves. And he says he shot the band members in shaded profile to get across the idea that the Pistols were part of some sort of "witness protection scheme" -- on the run from history.

The second big DVD extra, "Un-defining Punk," covers for a lot of the flaws of "The Filth and the Fury." The hourlong documentary, shot on hand-held video, records contemporary interviews of '70s-era punks from New York, Los Angeles and England, including Television's and Voidoids' Richard Hell, director Penelope Spheeris and Black Flag and Circle Jerks vocalist Keith Morris, among other photographers, zine-makers and scenesters. Together, they explain that the Pistols didn't explode in a vacuum, and that in New York, at least, punk was more about social politics than the state politics of London. If "The Filth and the Fury" tells one story, what its director and band members want viewers to think is the story, "Un-defining Punk" shows that punk meant something different for every person. So Spheeris can say something like, "My definition is: If you don' know, fuck you," and Hell can say, "To make such a big deal out of rock 'n' roll is ludicrous," and they're both right.

Jeff Stark

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

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