Reloaded Sex Pistols hits the target

Movie review

May 05, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

If you were lucky enough to see "The Great Rock and Roll Swindle" at the Maryland Film Festival last weekend, don't miss the antidote.

"Swindle," Julien Temple's 1980 history of punk pioneers the Sex Pistols as told through the eyes of former manager (and self-described Svengali) Malcolm McLaren, has since been disowned by the band as self-serving revisionist history.

So 20 years later Temple has made "The Filth and the Fury," an absorbing glimpse not only at the phenomenon of punk rock but also at British social history and the rock star mystique.

According to McLaren, the Sex Pistols were entirely of his own creation, an outgrowth of his career as a scene-maker and boutique owner always on the prowl for the Next Big Thing. But in "The Filth and the Fury" Temple seems to discover that the Pistols were actually a band before they met McLaren, formed in the 1970s by a group of musicians disaffected with the labor strikes, unemployment and vacuous Top-40 pop music that were holding Britain in a vise-grip.

While former Pistol John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) explains the malaise emerging from "everyone [being] on the dole" and garbage piling 10 feet high on the streets, Temple intercuts clips of Laurence Olivier in "Richard III," a leitmotif that recurs throughout "The Filth and the Fury."

As Lydon makes clear, the Sex Pistols weren't an attempt to cash in on that malaise as much as an expression of it. Rather than ignore the garbage bags at your feet, he says in the film, "Wear the garbage bag, for God's sake. Then you're dealing with it." "The Filth and the Fury" traces the band's furious climb to anti-stardom from club gigs where their fans tried to outdo each other in outrageous costumes ("It required a lot of skill, style and bravery to look like a cat," a band member says at one point) to the band's controversial appearance on a British chat show that got it banned from clubs and radio stations throughout the country.

"The Filth and the Fury" combines archival footage, cartoon re-enactments and present-day interviews with the surviving band members (Sid Vicious died of a heroin overdose in 1979). The result is a film that finally gives the band its due for stripping the artifice from rock music as it existed in the early '70s and resuscitating it with raw rage and power -- at least until the corporate-rock-driven 1980s.

In other words, it took a lot of skill, style and bravery to be the Sex Pistols. What it didn't take was Malcolm McLaren.

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