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The Filth and the Fury

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4

All-Reviews.com Movie Review: The Filth and the Fury

Starring: Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious
Director: Julien Temple
Rated: NR
RunTime: 105 Minutes
Release Date: January 2000
Genres: Music, Documentary


*Also starring: Steve Jones, Malcolm McLaren



Review by UK Critic
4 stars out of 4

A documentary with interviews of Paul Cook, Steve Jones, Johnny Lyden, Glen Matlock, Malcolm McLaren, Nancy Spungen and Sid Vicious.

No, I'm afraid Johnny Rotten is wrong: the Sex Pistols were not the first band to provide anthems for the young discontented. And their gigs were not the first opportunity for females to express individuality. But thank God they thought so, because their self-importance spurred them on, and as they became more extreme, they pissed off all the right people. It wasn't exactly a case of their lyrics exposing the depravity or hypocrisy of the British establishment; their outrageousness provoked it into exposing itself.

Consider: At one point during the group's short life, in the period of 1977-78, one London city councillor was riled enough to declare that they would be "much improved by sudden death". When their controversial single "God Save the Queen" rose to Number One on the British charts, it was denied a listing, leaving the top spot blank. And who could forget their infamous live television appearance with Bill Grundy, where they exploited his drunkenness by slipping swear words into the conversation. Grundy, half asleep, thought he was having a calm chat; the audience was outraged.

Julien Temple's "The Filth and the Fury" is a masterful new documentary about the fuss the Sex Pistols caused, which takes us through the above events and many more. It's one helluva colourful history. The title comes from one of a multitude of angry tabloid headlines, that sit in public record as a reminder of what a ridiculous fuss the reaction to the Pistols was. They of course found it delightful, because pushing the buttons of stuffed shirts gave them a thrill, and everyone who took a stern line on them ended up looking foolish. "The Filth and the Fury" shows this well. For anyone who thinks violent thoughts at the sight of Daily Mail reporters or conservative MPs, it's a movie that inspires applause, and giggles of subversive glee.

The story of the Pistols has been told in two previous feature-length documentaries, "The Great Rock and Rock 'n Roll Swindle" (1980) and "D.O.A." (1981). "Swindle" was reportedly manipulated into a piece of self-exaltation by the band's control-freak manager, Malcolm McLaren, and most critics rejected "D.O.A." as obvious junk. Since "The Filth and The Fury" has been made twenty years after the events it depicts, Temple, the director, has the benefit of hindsight, maturity, and access to a bigger collection of footage than ever before.

His film sets up a historical context for its tale, depicting the atmosphere of Britian in the 70s, when garbage piled up in central London, protests about everything dominated the news, the National Front gained support and wild fashions offered people an escape from reality. The Sex Pistols did not solve this with revolutionary profundity, but you have do give them credit for a dirty and aggressive form of artistic expression that was much more in-keeping with the spirit of the time than cheery disco music. Screaming about anarchy and wearing torn leathers simply made more sense than longing for "Night Fever" over a blow-drier.

Temple takes this idea too far when he cuts between the Pistols sizzling onstage and such images as the stand-up comedy of Ken Dodd and the over-the-top celebrations of the Queen's Silver Jubilee. He's trying to show how awesome the greatness of the band was against the cheesy culture of its time, but this is the one argument in the film that doesn't ring true, because we're never convinced that the excerpts we see are truly emblematic of that culture. Think about it -- you could take clips of a Peter Kaye routine and public grief over Princess Diana, and intercut them with a Blur performance of "Song 2". It wouldn't prove anything about the 90s.

This is a minor quibble, because the Sex Pistols' songs are strong enough to give power to the film without having to serve as a rebuttal for lesser art. Reviews shovelling the old cliché that you can enjoy the movie without being a fan seem to have been written by critics who either liked the music but felt silly afterward, or got a headache from the movie but didn't want to look square for denouncing it on that basis. "The Filth and the Fury" revels in Pistols iconography, and if you hate that, you'll hate the picture.

But I love the Sex Pistols -- their filth, their fury, their irony, energy, edge. And as long as viewers go without an aversion to the band, they should find "The Filth and the Fury" to be a work of greatness. The film mixes present-day interviews with archive footage shot on primitive videotape, but it's not like every other music documentary doing that -- the audio from the interviews is mostly overlayed over the old film clips, and so everything happens in our head, like a radio play. The few times the new interviews are shown onscreen, the faces are in silhouette, and the photographic style matches the grainy, pixelated stuff -- so we're never conscious of the film transitions, and the hypnotic spell is unbroken.

Copyright © 2000 UK Critic

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