The Filth and the Fury is, in a sense, intended as an antidote to Julien Temple’s 1980 directorial debut The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle, which is often credited with originating the now-legendary view of the band’s manager, Malcolm McLaren, as the mastermind behind the phenomenon that was the Sex Pistols. Temple’s new film presents the anti-McLaren version of The Sex Pistols’s history by presenting the band’s (predominantly John Lydon’s) side of the story. Despite Temple’s insistence that this is a “film” and not a standard documentary about a band, his approach to focus on the events of the band’s history as lived by the bandmembers, to “humanize” or personalize the history is not only anti-McLaren, but also self-consciously opposed to the “Situationists or academics” he believes have appropriated the story of the Sex Pistols (see the same interview). As such, The Filth and the Fury misses many opportunities for analysis and instead works to fetishize the individuals involved and to fetishize the band itself. Nonetheless, The Filth and the Fury is a very good, if nostalgic, rockumentary that effectively reproduces many of the pleasures associated with the spectacle of the Sex Pistols.
The Filth and the Fury opens with a sequence designed to indicate the chaotic social climate of London at the time the Sex Pistols was founded. These images are joined with voice-overs by John Lydon, Steve Jones, and Paul Cook describing their childhoods as distinctly working class. Thus the film begins by setting up the expectation that it will interrogate the cultural moment that produced British punk. But it doesn’t: instead, we are left with an uncritical portrait of mid-1970s London, still mired in a general and unexamined postwar dissatisfaction, as well as what winds up being a meaningless reference to the working class backgrounds of the bandmembers. If Temple had chosen to explore the implications of his opening sequence, he might well have produced a film about punk as a movement instead of a rockumentary about a particular band.
Such an analysis might, for example, have yielded insight into at least two important highlights of the Sex Pistols’s brief career. First, in early 1977, the band was very famously dropped by EMI, their record label at the time, in response to the moral outrage at the band’s public behaviors. This outrage was generated in large part by the media’s response to (and exacerbation of) the band’s now infamous appearance on Thames TV’s Today Programme. During the provocative interview, host Bill Grundy, who was drunk at the time, insists they “say something outrageous.” They do. Workers at EMI’s pressing plant threatened a job action if the band was not dropped from the label. This history is left out of The Filth and the Fury and instead we are given the standard narrative about bad boys who are too hot to handle. Second, on Christmas Day 1977, the Sex Pistols played for the last time in Britain at a benefit for striking workers and their families. The film presents this venue as incidental, as unworthy of a band with the number one pop single in the country. The single, “God Save the Queen,” was banned by the BBC and was not listed on the music charts; the tour was conducted in secret because of harassment from local authorities and because of club bans. Within this context, Temple moves on to document the Sex Pistols’s ill-fated American tour. It is at these and similar points in The Filth and the Fury that one wishes the film’s history was not exclusively personal and the references to the bandmembers’ class backgrounds were not purely descriptive.
Notwithstanding its various disappointments, the film successfully presents a very personal perspective on the band’s history. Archival footage is complemented by recent interviews with bandmembers shot in silhouette, presumably to avoid or at least to acknowledge this conventional rockumentary component. McLaren, who was not interviewed for the film, is represented by a disembodied bondage mask which speaks excerpts from previous interviews. In a particularly poignant and somewhat embarrassing segment, John Lydon cries while discussing Sid Vicious’s death. For his part, Sid Vicious’s commentary is extracted from clips of an interview conducted by Julien Temple in 1978. This interview reveals a surprisingly articulate Sid Vicious discussing virtually all aspects of the band’s history. Despite the personal insights, however, the story itself is already too familiar from the many other attempts to document the Sex Pistols: the tragedy of Sid Vicious, the demonization of Nancy Spungeon, the rivalries between bandmembers, the media manipulation, the antagonistic relationship between Malcolm McLaren and John Lydon, etc. The recent interviews provide insight into the bandmembers’s feelings about these issues, but nothing substantive is revealed that recasts or even complicates the history itself.
The film proceeds chronologically through this familiar history by juxtaposing footage of the Sex Pistols much of which fans will be pleased to know is previously unreleased with clips of contemporaneous British television (including news segments, weather reports, advertisements, game show clips, etc.). As a result, the context for punk (which is conflated throughout with the Sex Pistols) is very clearly British pop culture, and particularly British mainstream media culture. Consequently, the Sex Pistols’s intrusion into an otherwise banal media culture is presented as a clash of styles. This strategy formally severs the link suggested by the film’s opening between British punk and the social relations that produced it. It is now a purely aesthetic contrast. For example, the juxtaposition of the Sex Pistols’s performance on Top of the Pops with those of the other bands appearing there at the time makes the Sex Pistols appear somehow modern and the other bands somehow outdated. The technique does accurately demonstrate the extent to which the aesthetic innovations associated with punk have been assimilated over the past twenty-five years, thereby generating a certain amount of pleasure for the audience. But it fails to recreate the dialectic between “respectable” and “outrageous” performances which might originally have rendered the contrast meaningful. At one point, Lydon laments the commodification of the style he helped popularize. Left unexamined and unacknowledged, however, by both Lydon and the film itself, is the confluence of the band’s desire to achieve popular success, the mass media’s hegemonic function, and the music (and fashion) industry’s reliance on innovation.
“The majority of the people who will see [the film],” according to Eric Gardner, John Lydon’s manager and the executive producer of The Filth and the Fury, “were not part of the punk movement. They will be going to see what all the fuss was about” (www.filthandfury.com). But if, as Gardner implies, punk was a movement, prospective audiences would not know that from a rockumentary so relentlessly focused on the personal history of the Sex Pistols. The film misses the opportunity to look beneath the standard version of punk history and tell the story of punk as a genuine social movement struggling to create a truly participatory culture. The Sex Pistols were and, to a certain extent, remain an important influence on that movement. Gardner claims that “when punk came to America and American bands began copying the Sex Pistols, the anger was manufactured. One of the important things about the film is that it helps people to understand that the creation of the Pistols was as much to do with politics and economics as it was music.” Because The Filth and the Fury fails to analyze the political economy of British punk that produced and extended beyond the Sex Pistols, audiences are left ill-equipped to understand the contours of a movement that did resonate in America. And because the film is really a rockumentary, audiences are left with a fetishized view of the Sex Pistols that renders the movement itself inauthentic.