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Archive for Thursday, August 17, 2000

Pistols pack a wallop in documentary

August 17, 2000

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Ah, the Sex Pistols. For one brief moment, it was the best band in the world. Unfortunately, things fell apart, as the group spiraled into fame, destruction and death. Much of this is captured in Julien Temple's recent documentary, "The Filth and The Fury."

"Filth" is far from the first documentary of the Pistols, but it's the best of the lot to date. Director Julien Temple also oversaw 1980's now-infamous "Great Rock N Roll Swindle," which was a chaotic pastiche of fiction and nonfiction -- sort of a Magical Mystery Tour for the early punk era.

Temple borrows bucketsful of footage from "Swindle," as well as other sources such as the wonderful "Punk Rock Movie," which features reams of scorching live footage of the Pistols.

"The Filth and The Fury" faithfully tells the Pistols' story -- or at least the first, and most important, couple of years. Notables like Billy Idol, Siouxsie Sioux and Shane MacGowan have wonderful cameos that underscore their involvement in the English punk scene. It would have been a great touch to hit them up for new interviews.

The director wisely chose to conduct his new interviews with the surviving Pistols in dark light and shadows -- obscuring their middle-age and preserving their youth. Though that move is highly effective, it also continues to make myth out of truth, putting a grandiose spin on reality -- commonplace in the Pistols' dirty world. Thus, the Pistols never have to grow old or out of date. Temple preserves the Pistols in amber -- keeping the members forever young and ageless.

"Filth" also contains moments of sheer joy and spectacular depravity, though, that are transcendent and powerful. The footage of the band onstage -- gleefully shredding everything "good" about music at the time and creating timeless, spiky-haired art -- is still a wonder to watch after all these years and is well worth the price of admission alone.

The Pistols were cartoonish characters whose larger-than-life presence almost requires being captured upon the movie screen. Much of the live footage has been seen before -- in "Swindle," "Punk" and elsewhere -- but it's never looked or sounded so good.

Temple's interviews with the surviving Pistols also are compelling and gripping. During one moment toward the film's end, the never-less-than harsh John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotton) breaks down when discussing the death of bassist Sid Vicious. "He DIED, man," Lydon says, nearly choking on his own words.

It is the film's most powerful moment and cuts through the hype to show that the Pistols were a bunch of kids who got in woefully over their heads.

Less powerful is Temple's use of conceptual footage -- montages of bondage gear, violence and general punk naughtiness -- that tends to get in the film's way and slow it down.

"Filth" contains much of the mythmaking that has always been part of the Pistols' oeuvre. Sid Vicious played drums in Siouxsie and the Banshees before joining the Pistols -- a fact that is overlooked in favor of "he-came-from-nowhere" mythmaking.

Also conveniently overlooked is the Sex Pistols' mid-'90s "filthy lucre" reunion tour, where the surviving band members blatantly cashed in on its own legacy.

Still, Temple has pieced together the best Pistols documentary to date -- one that faithfully captures the essence of the madness that surrounded the band's early years and precipitous rise to fame.

For the uninitiated, "The Filth and The Fury" might be a bit hard to follow, and there is an assumption that viewers are already familiar with the Pistols' story and much of the footage and music being used.

For those already familiar with the band's legacy, "Filth" puts everything together nicely and is a joy to watch.

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