You can count on one hand the rock & roll documentaries (”Woodstock,” ”Stop Making Sense”) that have done justice to the grandeur of their subjects. To that very short list, add The Filth and the Fury, a great, searching, incendiary chronicle of the Sex Pistols, the razor-hearted visionaries of punk anarchy. Made in collaboration between the now middle-aged band members and director Julien Temple, whose first feature, ”The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle” (1980), was a cynical, nose-thumbing fantasia on the same saga, the movie puts an arresting human face on the brief, unholy reign of Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, and company.
We’re given a definitive inside view of their boyhoods, their bitter ambiguous alliance with manager/huckster Malcolm McLaren, the media circus that surrounded their infamy as shock-rock idols, their grisly flameout of an American tour, and the tragedy of Sid Vicious’ heroin-driven downfall, which actually inspires the present-day John Lydon, né Rotten, to choke up on camera. And you thought the Sex Pistols had no feelings.
The Pistols were arguably the first, and last, rock band to try and remake the world by toppling its foundations. Their music, like their image, was sheer nihilistic apocalypse — an all-out assault on England, on rock, on civilization itself. Yet it was also, in its violence and its caterwauling abandon, strangely beautiful. The Pistols took the primal power of three-chord rock & roll and ratcheted it up to a level of such deranged, hurtling aggression that, in their hands, a simple pop song acquired the liberating force of a weapon. To hear them was to feel as if you were holding that weapon yourself, and that it was cocked and loaded.
The Pistols’ rage may have emerged from a swamp of English social misery, but Lydon, interviewed, like the rest of the band, while shrouded in shadow, describes how their ripped-T-shirt-and-safety-pin look was an expression of pure poverty, and how he drew the persona of Johnny Rotten from a grand tradition of music-hall comics and British theatrical devilry. The movie is brilliantly edited, in a fluid, free-associative style exemplified by the sly recurring cuts from Rotten’s sneering, spitting onstage antics to the beaming wickedness of Laurence Olivier in ”Richard III.” The point isn’t that the Pistols were a put-on, but that even these ultimate English bad boys had theater in their blood.
Eyes agleam, his voice a mad wail that turns into a whiplash, Johnny Rotten, seizing the stage as the psycho hunchback triumphant, emerges in ”The Filth and the Fury” as the most ferocious rock star who ever lived. The Pistols’ concert footage has never been reproduced with this much clarity and cathartic power. Their bilious, accusatory anthems build in conviction, so that by the time we hear ”God Save the Queen” (intercut, in a luscious wink to the lyrics, with old clips of Queen Elizabeth looking very much like a human being), there is perhaps only one word to describe its epic, righteous, buzz saw intensity. That word is passion. The Sex Pistols may have tried to destroy the world, but, as ”The Filth and the Fury” reveals, that was only to save it.