If you had asked me, in the early spring of 2000, whether I was a happy guy, I would have flashed you my brightest Gavin Macleod smile and assured you, yes, I'm a happy guy. If you asked me the same question later that same summer, I would have given you the same smile and told you, no -- in fact I'm quite pissed off. If pressed for my reasons, I might have pulled together a few of the usual suspects (the gummint, blah de blah), but the reality was I had seen The Filth & The Fury: A Sex Pistols Film, and the experience had been so immersive I couldn't help but feel incredibly pissed off.
I wasn't originally a Sex Pistols fan -- I thought, back in the day, that The Clash had more musicality, more smarts and (despite Lester Bangs' articulate disappointment) considerably more charm than the Pistols ever did. I couldn't have named more than two or three of the Pistols' songs, tops. In later years I thought "Anarchy In The U.K." had a piquant Black Sabbath shock value to it, but from my perspective as a paperboy in small-town Canada "God Save The Queen" seemed kind of juvenile. "She ain't no human bean"?! Where's Pogo when you need him?
Watching this film some 20-plus years after the fact brought a little splenetic perspective to the whole Sex Pistols' phenomenon. Julien Temple splices old doc footage of the London garbage strike, union protests, race riots and spices it up with Lawrence Olivier's hammy turn at Richard III, and a montage of Merry British Slapstick artists. This MTV approach gives the rancorous British Punk Movement a jolly gloss it may or may not have actually had at the time. But whether or not this "movement" had the venomous bliss we're presented becomes, after a while, a bit beside the point. The camera lens might be showered with loogies, but the audience is safe as houses -- it's 20 years later, and though the filth is at a pleasant remove, the fury still has heat.
I rented the movie a year later, and watched it several times in the span of a week. It's clear from the interview footage that no-one in the band is too sure what they were all about. John Lydon has tremendous force of personality, and even an ideology of sorts, so he invariably supplies the strongest narrative arc. But even he seems at a loss to explain why the Pistols caught the American public's imagination. The Pistols toured the United States out of boredom and desperation, because they'd been effectively shut down in the U.K. When they did their shows in cowboy bars, they clearly had no idea what to do with their audience; audience members returned the favour. Throw in the band's escalating frustration with manager Malcolm McLaren (and the fact that none of these people, particularly the heroin addict, had pleasant personalities) and it's a wonder they made it as far as their final one-song concert in San Francisco.
So why does this film have any power at all? Well, it helps that just about everybody interviewed is funny. The archival footage is loaded with all sorts of telling little details -- you see pretty quickly the hopeless tedium that spread through England in the 70s, especially among the poor kids from families on the dole. And Temple edits it all at a snappy pace so that the moment the band strikes their first fuzzy chord and Rotten opens his mangled mouth, the brilliant Big Exit seems to finally materialize for them all. It looks better and even sounds better than it ever was (I'm particularly fond of Temple's fiddling with "Road Runner" -- Olivier barking, "Deformed! Unfinished!" is note-perfect).
In the film's intro, Johnny Rotten declares with considerable pride, "We managed to offend everyone we were fed up with." That's never been my goal, but I have to admit it's still a heap of fun living vicariously through a band of tossers who pulled this off on a near-global scale.
Film Fave #13