Grade: B

Julien Temple’s new documentary dealing with the revolutionary
Punk Rock band The Sex Pistols can be bookended with his
earlier “The Great Rock and Roll Swindle” (1980), which told
the tale of the group’s brief, notorious history and ultimate
collapse from the point of view of its self-serving manager
Malcolm McLaren, who gave himself total credit for the Pistols’
meteoric rise and put blame for their calamitous descent on the
unruly members of the band. The second picture covers much of
the same territory, but is told from the band’s perspective,
with McLaren portrayed in a far less favorable light. The
juxtaposition of the two makes for an intriguing experiment in
oral and cinematic history. And on its own terms, “The Filth
and the Fury” (the title, of course, has a Shakespearean twist,
but actually derives from a headline about the Pistols’ antics
which appeared in a Fleet Street tabloid) is certainly engaging
to watch and often compelling to ruminate on. Using lots of
found footage and old interview tapes, as well as newly-
recorded conversations, Temple manages not only to rehearse
the unhappy story of the group’s rise and fall, but to capture
quite effectively the English milieu of the time, with its
combination of economic woe, gaudy gashion and political unrest.
A good deal of the credit has to go to editor Niven Howie, who
creates some really impressive cinematic collages that catch
the frenzied spirit of the late seventies in Britain (even if
most American viewers won’t recognize figures such as Harold
Wilson and Edward Heath, who pass by in the blur). Temple also
uses found footage well to suggest that the Pistols’ raucous,
offensive style had roots in the British music-hall tradition
and the grosser side of English TV vaudeville. And the excerpts
from the Pistols’ concerts, contemporary television appearances
and offstage antics still retain the power simultaneously to
shock, amuse and appall. One can also be taken by the periodic
appearances of Laurence Olivier as the smirking villain of his
filmization of “Richard III” as witty commentary on the fashion
in which the Pistols played on their bad-boy images during their
brief time in the sun (the credit sequence is patterned after
that of Oliver’s film, too); they also amusingly reinforce
the Shakespearean tone of the title.

It must be added, however, that anybody who’s seen Temple’s
earlier film on the group and/or read John (Johnny Rotten)
Lydon’s 1994 autobiography won’t find a great deal here that’s
terribly surprising or revelatory. The new interviews with
band members–all of them, except for Rotten, curiously filmed
with their faces obscured in shadow, to no apparent point–
pretty much reiterate their old diatribes against McLaren, who’s
heard speaking through a rubber bondage mask of the sort he
used to sell in a London boutique. The visual flourishes
involved in such proceedings are intriguing, but there doesn’t
seem much purpose behind them except to energize the recycled

On the other hand, it’s certainly useful to have a few bits
from a late-in-life interview by Sid Vicious, the band member
who was accused of murdering his girlfriend and later died of
a drug overdose (and who was, it appears, quite instrumental in
insuring the group’s demise, too), even if his remarks aren’t
entirely coherent and their presence won’t displace the primacy
still rightfully held by Alex Cox’s “Sid and Nancy” (1986) on
the subject, whatever the dramatic licenses taken in that
renegade biopic.

“The Filth and the Fury” doesn’t exactly fill an enormous gap
in material on The Sex Pistols, therefore, and viewers familiar
with their story will find a good deal that’s repetitious and
redundant here. Nevertheless the group’s music, sizable
chunks of which are included, still has surprising power and
resonance in spite of (or perhaps because of) their rather
serious technical limitations, and Temple and Howie’s swift,
virtuoso editing keeps the eye and ear engaged even when
they’re not being offered anything terribly new. If you’re
unacquainted with the subject, moreover, you should find that
the piece stands on its own quite nicely and provides some
fascinating cultural history to boot.