THE FILTH AND THE FURY directed by Julien Temple

Film / Video Reviews
THE FILTH AND THE FURY directed by Julien Temple
Oct 10, 2000, 06:32

THE FILTH AND THE FURY directed by Julien Temple; Fine Line Features, 2000

“Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?”

On January 14, 1978, Johnny Rotten delivered the fitting kiss-off to the world. The Sex Pistols were putting the finishing touches on a San Francisco show that was drowning in a cesspool of chaos. The band was sloppy, demoralized and flat-broke The audience was abusive, hurling insults and projectiles. And Sid Vicious was a human pin cushion: his chest covered in scars; his veins wasted from heroin.

The Filth and the Fury, a phrase once used in a London tabloid to describe the band's scandalous ascent, had come to signify nothing. The Pistols had gone from euphoric nihilists to a hollow shell of a band.

Julien Temple's film of the same name explores the transformation. He zigzags between interview sequences and footage of the band spewing vulgarities and punk anthems to create a portrait as energetic and frenetic as “Anarchy in the U.K.” It' s full of early gigs in cramped clubs, thumb-nosing TV appearances and notorious shows, including a Queen Elizabeth Jubilee concert on the Thames River in 1977 that was raided by London police.

Throughout, Temple, an early cohort who directed the 1980 documentary, The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, takes up the band's version of events. Guitarist Steve Jones and Paul Cook boast about being drop outs and stealing guitars and amplifiers. A strung-out Vicious mumbles, “I want to cause a fucking riot when I do a gig... so I can be violent back. I like violence. It turns me on.”

(Interview sequences with Malcolm McLaren, are juxtaposed with a shot of a man in a rubber suit who is getting pumped up with air. And hot air is what he delivers: “My sculpture, my painting, my little artful dodgers,” he calls them.)

Rotten, meanwhile, recounts how punk bloomed, with torn shirts and safety pins, in opposition to the bombastic arena-rock of the 1970s. And he articulates the spirit of punk: “Being a peacock and standing out from the crowd while being part of the disposed.”

What sets Rotten apart in the film is that he comes off not only a provocateur but a rebel artist in the tradition of Arthur Rimbaud. He confronts everything: the rock and political establishments, even punk. In one scene, Rotten recounts Vicious's drug-fueled decline by describing his attire: “The leather jacket came with the heroin and then came the vampire goth look.”

Fashion fascism? Not on Rotten's part. Unlike so many rockers who play the rebel role only to conform to an alternate set of rules, here Rotten is keenly aware of the dangers of myth and conformity. They turned the Sex Pistols into a larger-than-life pop concept. They also killed Vicious and the band.

Temple is just as aware. Unlike so many rockumentaries, The Filth and the Fury never romanticizes the past. There are no candid “what-might-have-been” or “we're-more-mature-today” moments. Even when the Pistols are reconvened to reflect, they're shot in total darkness, as if they were rape victims or in some witness protection program.

Granted, it's easier to be nostalgic about hippie dippydom than an era that promised “no future.” But Temple's film is less a film about punk than it is a sober portrait of a rock and roll riot. You not only get the glowing euphoria of the looting spree, but the broken glass and scars of the aftermath.

-John Petkovic

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