Category Archives: Documentaries – Music
“Amy is the best film I’ve almost walked out on at the cinema. Not because it is a bad movie, but because I knew how it was going to end.
I knew how it was going to end before it started, of course, having witnessed the tragedy of Amy Winehouse’s dramatic rise and fall from the rabid perspective of the media not so long ago.
What makes the opening hour of Asif Kapadia’s earnest and heartfelt documentary so unbearable is that it brings Winehouse back to life so vividly. She fills the screen as a smart, funny, vulnerable, brash, beautiful, sublimely talented young artist, and it dawns on you that you’ll have to watch her die again from a different perspective, with greater knowledge of her as a human being, rather than just the addled tabloid caricature she eventually became…” Click here to read the full review (opens in a new tab)
Static, then focus on BBC One’s old revolving globe. The announcer tells us it’s time for a late look at the weather, and then over to poor old Michael Fish, who’s having trouble getting his “weather” to stick to the map of Britain.
Then it’s the Johnny Rotten show, who gives a brief introduction over the opening credits. In his distinctively sneering and lucid way, he gives a few thoughts on what it’s like to be in a band, how much hard work it is, concluding: “We managed to offend all the people we were fucking fed up with.”
Temple’s previous documentary about the Sex Pistols, 1980’s The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle was biased in favor of the Pistol’s shamelessly self-promoting manager, Malcolm McLaren, and was perhaps made too close to the events and initial fame of the band.
The Filth and the Fury looks at the Sex Pistols phenomenon down the length of a further twenty years of history, and Temple allows the remaining band members to tell their side of the story, albeit in silhouette, as if they’re somehow protecting their identities.
As you’d expect, Johnny Rotten (aka John Lydon, now making lucrative butter commercials) gets most of the choice lines, although guitarist Steve Jones, who instigated the scandalised “Filth and the Fury” headlines by swearing on live TV, runs Rotten a pretty close second.
Rotten’s voice and viewpoint is the dominant force, and he also gives a narrative of Britain in the Seventies. A grotty, wheezing, failing country of derelict tenements and grim blocks of flats, betrayed by a Labour government out of touch with what is going on in the country around them. (….!)
It’s a Britain of grim, relentless unemployment and rubbish piled up in the streets, riots and powercuts. “When you feel powerless, you will grab any power you can to retain some kind of self respect.”
Rotten describes this time of social upheaval as the seed of the Sex Pistols; as he says: “I don’t think you can explain how things happen, other than sometimes they just should. The Sex Pistols should have happened, and did.”
These opening moments are perhaps the strongest part of the documentary, giving such an urgent feel of time and place, the newsreel footage intercut with TV commercials for Cadburys Flake and soap powder, and clips of Laurence Olivier being deliciously despicable as Richard III. (Rotten likens his stage performances to Olivier’s.)
This feels like the Britain I grew up in, even though I was a few days short of my first birthday when Sid Vicious died, so wasn’t really conscious of the world around me until well into the early Eighties. But the country felt the same to me as it looks like in this opening montage, and a lot of the detritus from the Seventies washed through ato my childhood – the telly still finished at midnight, Charley the cat was still telling us not to go off with strangers, and men in tights were still teaching us the green cross code.
The band members give a brief overview of their working class childhoods, tales of poverty and petty theft in the ramshackle estates of London; then how they grew up in awe of the likes of David Bowie and Roxy Music – “I thought musicians fell from the sky.” Jones remembers.
The group gradually formed, with Jones and Cook self-teaching how to play on knocked off or stolen equipment, and became friendly with McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, who ran a counter-culture clothing store on King’s Road.
McLaren is a presence in the film, although not in any talking head form like the rest of the band; there are clips of him spouting his usual pretentious nonsense. After his shop transformed to “SEX”, selling rubberwear and fetish gear, McLaren is portrayed in the rest of the documentary as a looming inflatable gimp mask.
Under McLaren’s tutelage, the band came together, dropping some original members, and picking up lead singer Rotten almost by accident. Rotten hadn’t sang before, but got the gig because of his distinctive look and attitude. “I always did view myself as one ugly fucker.” admits Rotten, and this self-effacement or self-loathing transformed into his grotesque postures and bug-eyed, snarling performances as the Sex Pistols’ frontman.
After initial distrust – Jones’ first impression of Lydon: “I thought he was a wanker for taking the piss.” the band eventually came together. Lydon wistfully remembers: “We were the very first people to call each other cunts.”
There’s plenty of early footage of the band playing in grubby pubs and clubs, and of the scene that sprouted up around them – including a very young looking Billy Idol and Shane MacGowan. Rotten continues by describing their performances as music hall, and identifies the vein of humour that runs through the core of “Englishness”.
And then, to fame – “The first line I wrote was: I am an anti-christ.” remembers Lydon, the first line of “Anarchy in the UK”, their first hit that ushered them towards a two year record deal with EMI and a clash with Bill Grundy, the lecherous old school host of ITV’s “Today” programme, which in turn would lead them to headline-grabbing infamy.
The Sex Pistols were already attracting negative press by that point; the Britain of the Seventies was deeply mired in the prudishness and hypocrisy of the stuffy, buttoned up establishment, who saw the Pistols and their spotty, filthy-looking followers as a threat to the neatly established order.
The Grundy incident is replayed in full, as the tatty, edgy Sex Pistols and a few groupies – including Siouxsie Sioux – are offhandly introduced by a brusque, drunk and arrogant Bill Grundy. The first swear word is overlooked by the host – “because he was drunk himself, and wasn’t paying attention.” according to Jones – but when Lydon utters “Shit.” and Grundy latches on. Lydon clearly realises his mistake and tries to gloss over it, but Grundy makes him say it again, telling him off like a headmaster talking to a naughty schoolboy.
When Grundy then appears to hit on Siouxsie Sioux, suggesting meeting up backstage, Jones apparently leaps in to defend her honour, lashing into Grundy, calling him a “dirty old bastard” and a “fucking rotter.”
Looking back, it’s easy to feel Jones’ reaction to Grundy’s smug and complete lack of respect was completely justified. Of course, Britain was a very different country then, and the Pistols’ uncouth look and attitude on national TV was seen as an affront to decency and stuck up, old fashioned morals, and the papers went to town on them.
The middle section of the documentary covers the band’s simultaneous rise to fame and infamy – approximately in equal measures – including one hilariously Orwellian moment when there officially wasn’t a UK Chart number One. The Sex Pistol’s “God Save the Queen” was banned, so Number One slot was left blank when they topped the Charts with the song.
It also covers the introduction of Sid Vicious to the band. Vicious was a poorly educated, occasionally violent friend of Rotten, and the band’s number one fan. Vicious could only play a few chords when he replaced bass player Glen Matlock, who left the band after fall outs with Rotten and becoming uncomfortable with the direction the Pistols were going in.
Vicious perhaps became even more synonymous with The Sex Pistols than Rotten, with his looks and attitude making him a punk icon. Even as the pressure of fame began to show on the band, and cracks started to appear, each member was fairly unanimous in their utter condemnation and hate towards Nancy Spungen, an American heroin-addict and sometime prostitute who hooked Vicious on the drug, leading to his addiction and downward spiral. After the band split, he was arrested for stabbing her to death in a hotel bathroom. He was released on bail and died of a heroin overdose.
The most poignant moments of the documentary relate to Vicious’s decline, and Johnny Rotten, in his comments on him, reveal a man still plagued by guilt and regret for not being able to protect his friend.
It’s in these moments you realise most powerfully that the Sex Pistols weren’t the anarchic, violent menace to society they were portrayed at the time – they were kids, products of that society, who were angry and fed up and were willing to shout down a microphone and let everyone know it. They were kids, and they were the most famous and infamous people in Britain, and they weren’t being looked after by anyone. While labels were cashing in, Rotten was left to walk the streets by himself, and was stabbed in a brutal attack by skinheads.
The Sex Pistols ended on 14th January, 1978 at a gig in San Francisco. Divided, Vicious back on the smack and Rotten increasingly demoralised by McLaren’s handling of the band, they ended with a defeated Rotten singing “No Fun” and asking the audience, “Ever felt like you’ve been cheated?”
“The Filth and the Fury” is perhaps ten minutes too long, but is an essential film for anyone even remotely interested in one of the most influential bands who ever “happened”. Even if you’re not into punk, music, or “The Sex Pistols”, you should maybe watch it anyway, because it’s a damn good story.
Of all the characters, Rotten comes across the best – apart from his lacerating wit and shrewd, hard-won wisdom, there’s something generous about his honesty and scorn, and a truthfulness to his hatred and dismay – particularly that felt towards McLaren and those he felt cashed in on the band, and Vicious’ addiction and death.
And it is fitting that he finishes with the final line, “All I wish is for future generations to go, ‘Fuck it! I’ve had enough! Here’s the truth!”, and you can’t help get the feeling we are starting to see that happening now, in a different form, with the London riots.
I’ve lived abroad for three years, and viewed from overseas, Britain looks more and more like the Britain shown in the clips at the beginning of this documentary. All I see when I go home to visit is a country regressing to how I remember it when I was growing up, but with more shops boarded up and more holes in the road.
And the youths rioting in London, smashing up shops and nicking what they could get hold of, more and more look like a youth betrayed and ignored by an ineffective, apathetic government. Lydon says things can’t always be explained, and happen because they should…I can’t help feeling the London riots “should” have happened. Who knows, perhaps out of all this, we might get another Sex Pistols?