When things were Rotten

Movie: The Filth and the Fury

Our Rating: 4.50

Twenty-two years after their bright star flickered and died, the Sex Pistols still defy easy classification or explanation. Director Temple's chronicle of the influential punk quartet's rise and fall is part rockumentary, part political time piece, part poison-pen letter to former manager Malcolm McLaren and part anguished requiem for a life destroyed by drugs (Sid Vicious', of course, here vindicated as a human tragedy after decades of commercial exploitation).

The proliferation of rootless, second-generation punks seems to have inspired Temple (and the surviving Pistols) to place the band's anarchic postures in a social context. "The Filth and the Fury" is a montage of visual memorabilia that juxtaposes recently unearthed concert footage against campy British TV commercials and newsreel images of street riots -- "mixed mass media," one might term the high-art approach. Less obvious is the use of scenes from "Richard III" and clips of TV comedians to illustrate the essential paradox of the Pistols' career: Their nose-thumbing assault on the ruling order was actually a show-business spectacle that was firmly grounded in English tradition.

The modern-day interviews with the grown-up Johnny Rotten and company are all shot in silhouette, preventing any evidence of the march of time from interfering with the ongoing paean to the passion of youth. On that front, "Filth" pays off in spades. As we watch a barely postpubescent Billy Idol striding into one of the Pistols' gigs, it's clear that McLaren's ultimate worth to the band was his decision to film nearly everything.

Those blacked-out faces, however, serve the added, ironic purpose of making the group's remaining members look like anonymous victims of a horrible family tragedy. The film's final reel presents a good case that they were just that -- naive assassins whose natural venom was ultimately useless against the immutable forces of money, power and manipulation. "No fun," indeed.


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