The Filth and the Fury

UK/USA 1999

Reviewed by Mark Sinker


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

This documentary features interviews old and new, film footage shot between 1975 and 1979 and footage from television at that time to retell the story of the Sex Pistols, the key outfit in the emergence of UK punk. Narrated primarily in voiceover from surviving band members John Lydon/Rotten, Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Glen Matlock, the cultural and political background is sketched. A portrait emerges of the group's formation, public arrival, combined chart success and media outrage, and collapse while touring America.

A hitherto-unseen interview with bass player Sid Vicious (real name John Beverly), who died of a heroin overdose, is framed by interviews with the other band members in the present. They discuss how and why it all happened, and how much responsibility their manager Malcolm McLaren (not interviewed except in archive footage) can be allowed for the triumphs or the catastrophes of the group.


In late 1976, 20 years after Elvis Presley's worldwide arrival, the Clash presented their notorious rejectionist manifesto of punk renewal: "No Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones in 1977". Implied here was a self-removing, rarely honoured promise: "No Pistols or Clash in '78". This is just one reason why Julien Temple's return, two decades on, to the subject matter of The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle (1980), the movie that gave him a career in Hollywood, can only betray the material it noisily claims to be rescuing: the Sex Pistols' brief, calamitous career.

In fact, despite its much-touted previously unseen footage and video material, the documentary is little more than a clumsy bid for atonement for Temple's earlier role as Malcolm McLaren's puppet on the set of Swindle, directing to the Pistols' manager's brief. Yet by gracelessly demonising McLaren - often by editing in fragments of Swindle, itself a prankishly radical essay in self-demonisation - The Filth and the Fury panders to all the participating survivors as they retrospectively recast their stories. This time round our blithely revisionist director makes sure he's 'in' with the 'lads'.

Insofar as Temple manages a structure at all, the story is framed by two events. The first is the band's debut television appearance, shown in full. Host Bill Grundy patronises, goads and hits on this bevy of nervous kids. With Johnny Rotten cowed by the occasion, Steve Jones seizes the stage, cussing - as requested - in language both archaic and stilted: "What a fucking rotter!" The result was a notorious headline in the Daily Mirror (which gives the film its title), yet the most obvious point to make today is how mild this palaver seems. Mid-evening sitcoms now routinely dribble out stronger stuff.

The second event was less Bash-Street-Kids, yet its status as myth remains just as unaddressed. In 1979, in the wake of his girlfriend Nancy's murder in the Chelsea Hotel, chief suspect Sid Vicious overdosed on heroin, and this probable suicide became the instant of the movement's failure on its own terms. Haunted by the sordid debacle of his best friend's public immolation, Rotten is allowed by Temple to vomit forth slanderous contempt towards one-time co-conspirator McLaren, although the 'anti-drugs' line he takes, preeningly moralistic and evasive, simply turns him into Sting saving the Rainforest.

In an age when subconscious folk memories of 1977 are endlessly mobilised within the media industry to invoke uncritical tolerance of every new trend, this documentary needed, at a minimum, to confront its principals with the history of the last 20 years. Unsurprisingly, gravity and the good life have thickened up even these once-skinny popstar bodies. But Temple interviews them in friendly silhouette, daylight streaming past their now somewhat Grundified outlines, in this context an act of cowardice, especially when long-noted contradictions, historical inaccuracies, and rock-chat clichés are all allowed to wobble by unremarked. It's as if the same amber that Temple mummifies poor dead Sid in must necessarily gum up the living.

A director less compromised by his own wannabe-punk influences might have cut through to fresh insight at any number of opportunities during these interviews. For example, at one point we see images from the Pistols' benefit performance at a party for the children of striking firemen, when their position as media demons had them banned from most orthodox venues. The fact that a smiling Rotten handed out cake to tots had to be hidden at the time, for the sake of establishing the intransigent 'rawness' of punk. Besides, the 'humanising' effect of any such counter-demonisation would have been swiftly sentimentalised.

But sentimentalisation comes in many forms. Much of Filth's feebleness stems from its spavined attitude to class. Where the ex-Pistols continue to cast weird, lurid, revelatory light on the English working-class's mutilated sense of itself, Temple does his best to muddy everything they give him, to represent the chafing inflammation within the band of subtly distinct social layers and tensions - the root of its iconoclastic energy - as mere personality clash. Meanwhile, the banishment of McLaren to the role of deluded bourgeois parasite, effectively reduces punk to just a clichéd "kick up the bum for the music business". Actually, only within the dream-field of McLaren's titanically irresponsible improvisation and self-absorbed utopian carelessness could two such inchoately ambitious, clever and dissimilar prole sensibilities as Lydon's and Jones' have combined, let alone fused, mutated and flared.

The blizzard of marketing which followed Sid's death was a disaster rock-careerwise, but only because it flushed out Rotten's fundamental rock 'n' roll decency, at the expense of his flagellant daring as a performer. Unburdened by such pseudo-situationist game-play, the weary Sex Pistols might well have sunk their differences for a time (with each other, and with their record company). By not splitting, they could have become the next Jethro Tull-style dinosaurs, desexed, artistically 'serious' - and pathetically irrelevant.


Julien Temple
Anita Camarata
Amanda Temple
Niven Howie
©Sex Pistols Residuals
Production Companies
FilmFour presents in association with The Sex Pistols a Jersey Shore/
Nitrate Film production for Film Four Limited
Executive Producers
Eric Gardner
Jonathan Weisgal
LA Co-ordinator
Cari Cohen
John Shearlaw
Additional Photography
Geordie Devas
Picture Effects
The Farm
On-line Editor
Lars Woodruffe
"God Save the Queen (Symphony)"; "Chirpy Chirpy Cheap Cheap" by Middle of the Road; "Shang-A-Lang" by Bay City Rollers; "Pictures of Lily" by The Who; "Virginia Plain" by Roxy Music; "Skinhead Moonstomp" by Simaryp; "Glass of Champagne" by Sailor; "Through My Eyes" by The Creation; "Jean Genie" by David Bowie;
"Submission", "Don't Gimme No Lip Child", "What'cha Gonna Do about It", "Road Runner", "Substitute", "Seventeen", "Anarchy in the UK", "Pretty Vacant", "Did You No Wrong", "Liar", "EMI", "No Feelings", "I Wanna Be Me", "God Save the Queen", "Problems" "Holidays in the Sun", "Bodies", "My Way", "No Fun", by Sex Pistols; "I'm Eighteen", "School's Out" by Alice Cooper; "Let's
Have a Ride on Your Bicycle" by Max Miller; "Way Over (In dub)" by Tappa Zukie; "Looking for a Kiss" by New York Dolls; "Who Killed Bambi" by Ten Pole Tudor
Video Clips
"Hot Legs"by Rod Stewart; "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen; Tudor; "YMCA" by Village People
Sound Recordists
John Hennessey
Nick Robertson
Geoff Tookey
Dubbing Mixer
Dave McGrath
Supervising Sound Editor
Paul Davies
Dialogue Editor
Bernard O'Reilly
Jack Stew
Felicity Cottrell
Jens Christensen
Film Extracts
D.O.A. (1981)
The Punk Rock Movie (1977)
Dressing for Pleasure (1977)
Richard III (1955)
Back-room Boy (1942)
A Stitch in Time (1963)
Hamlet (1948)
Paul Cook
Steve Jones
Glen Matlock
John Lydon
Sid Vicious
Film Four Distributors
9,660 feet
107 minutes 21 seconds
In Colour
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011