The Filth & The Fury

Dir: Julian Temple, 1999. Starring: The Sex Pistols. Documentaries.
The Filth & The Fury

“Because the work, at the end of the day, is what matters…and we managed to offend all the people we were f***ing fed up with.”

– Johnny Rotten

Re-watching this totally galvanizing and incendiary punk documentary recently I was struck by how similar the England of the late 1970s was to our present moment. In the London of 1977 riots in the streets, and rampant distrust and contempt for the people in charge were the norm. And while London sort of burned the most horrific, empty, worthless pop culture endured that was as out of touch as any repeat broadcast of The Voice or Idol.

The parallels to our own times don’t just extend to the U.S. or Western Europe but also in places such as Iran whose youth revolt a few years ago sparked the Green Revolution or in Russia where Pussy Riot are raising the stakes for what it means and costs to use punk to get across a political message. To be a bit vague: so many people are really angry right now. We are living in strange times. And regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum it seems no one believes the authorities meant to speak for their interests any more. Yet the entrenched elite political and media classes continue to insist on their own relevance, but whether from a failed economy, too many outed lying sociopaths in power, or the greed and corruption that poisons so much of our media-directed discourse people seem to be buying into it less and less. Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?

It’s with this appreciation of how culturally relevant this Sex Pistols doc is again that I felt compelled to stick up for it a decade-plus removed from its release. It’s one of the few rock documentaries that can make you love a great band even more. If your knowledge of the Pistols is their classic debut and that previous weird cash-in doc about them, The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle, you will appreciate them in a whole new light. The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle was really Malcolm McClaren’s film, the Pistols’ manager. A not terribly funny tribute to the man’s alleged marketing genius it featured kinky dwarves and a bunch of “shocking” nihilistic nonsense that made the band look like obnoxious, cartoon party animals without any real belief system for what they were doing.

The Filth & The Fury explodes the myth of the Pistols as simply nihilistic party animals and instead shows them to represent, among other things, a genuinely articulate cry of protest against a country going down the toilet and the people in charge who let it get that way. With a precious arsenal of archival footage we are able to see the groundswell of change happening as the punk movement forms around them, becoming a genuine phenomenon. And their reach extends farther than punk clubs and the New Musical Express. For example we see them doing benefit gigs for the children of striking fire fighters. Even Sid Vicious comes off, not articulate exactly, but as far more of a charming and even vulnerable character than the wildly destructive rock n’ roll cliché he’s been portrayed as ever since.

The portrait that emerges is one of a group of disenfranchised, snotty city kids with a really good aesthetic, McLaren’s “little artful dodgers” who, for a few combustible years together, had an enormous effect on politics, fashion, and the iconography of England itself. We could use another band to come along and make rock n’ roll feel this menacing again.

Posted by:
Jed Leland
Mar 7, 2014 2:59pm
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