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Bollocks 

Wednesday, Apr 12 2000
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”Two sides to every story,“ John Lydon wailed on the October 1978 debut single by Public Image Ltd. The song, also called ”Public Image,“ was Lydon‘s attempt to claim his own identity, and a denial of the ”Johnny Rotten“ persona he had taken in the Sex Pistols, the group he’d left nine months before. The tune was also a backhand at the Pistols‘ manager, Malcolm McLaren, whom Lydon sued in November of that year to dissolve the pioneering British punk band’s partnership.

That single and that court action were the first moves in a long-running, egomaniacal chess game between Lydon and McLaren for rights to the Sex Pistols -- and not merely rights to their commercial assets, but also rights of authorship of the group itself, which the singer and the manager had contested since the band imploded at Winterland in San Francisco on January 14, 1978, after the last date of their first American tour. The new documentary, The Filth and the Fury, is the endgame.

McLaren‘s version of the Pistols’ rise and fall was told in The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, a feature directed by Julien Temple, a former film student and early Pistols fan. That docu-comedy -- in which McLaren drolly portrayed the band‘s brief, calamitous career as a highway robbery perpetrated upon the music industry, with himself as the mastermind -- was completed after Lydon left the group. Replaced at the mike onscreen by such specimens as train robber Ronnie Biggs and human cartoon Tenpole Tudor, Lydon was identified in the film as ”the collaborator,“ for his supposed connivance with ”the enemy“ -- the Pistols’ U.S. label, Warner Bros.

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By the time Swindle was released, in 1980, McLaren‘s management and film-production companies had been placed in receivership as a result of Lydon’s suit. In 1986, Lydon -- now joined by his former Pistols mates, guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook (both of whom had recorded as the Pistols after Lydon‘s exit), and the estate of the group’s second bassist, Sid Vicious (who OD‘d in February 1979 after killing his girlfriend, fellow junkie Nancy Spungen) -- finally wrested control of all the Pistols’ properties from McLaren in a court settlement.

Since then, the band‘s recordings and other works have been administered by a company called Sex Pistols Residuals. Among other things, that firm manages rights to The Great Rock ’n‘ Roll Swindle and other film footage of the band. Significant pieces of the earlier picture, previously unused material (including a hitherto unseen, depressingly candid interview with Vicious), and fresh interviews with Lydon, Jones, Cook and original bassist Glen Matlock (who was deposed in 1977 and replaced by Vicious) make up The Filth and the Fury.

This dishonest and often reprehensible film is purportedly director Temple’s second pass at recounting the Pistols saga, but it is no more his work than Swindle was. A better title for Filth might be Johnny Gets Final Cut, for here Lydon finally tells his side of the story. In one of the few times McLaren is on view in the new film, he is seen in a clip from Swindle, encased in a zippered rubber bondage mask of the sort he sold in his King‘s Road clothing store, Sex, where the Pistols had their genesis in 1975. Lydon, who’s clearly in the driver‘s seat here, couldn’t resist depicting his nemesis in a muzzle.

In Filth, the surviving band members are the main narrators, though Lydon‘s familiar, hectoring voice takes the lion’s share of camera time, and his point of view prevails. The musicians are shot in silhouette -- ostensibly to fix the film‘s events in the past, but obviously to disguise how old and fat the principals have grown. They run down personal histories, the harsh social-political-musical context in which the Pistols formed, and the story of the group’s vertiginous climb and precipitous crash. (The film‘s title is taken from a headline in London’s Daily Mirror on December 2, 1976, the day after the Pistols‘ drunkenly obscene outbursts on Bill Grundy’s Thames TV show Today effectively marked the beginning of the end for the band.)

The picture is ultimately notable for the horrific bile the participants hurl at one another, and especially for Lydon‘s excoriation of all save himself. In the vocalist’s words, McLaren is ”a liar,“ Matlock is ”an arsehole,“ and Jones and Cook are ”dumb,“ manipulable guys who ”just wanted groupies and fame.“ He shows little mercy for Vicious, perhaps his closest friend and most ardent fan in the band‘s early days. Described as ”the Gimmick“ in Swindle and serving as a pathetic scapegoat in Filth, the bassist is called ”the worst kind of rock & roll idiot you could ever hope to have a nightmare about“ by his onetime pal. When Lydon begins to weep guiltily as he talks about Vicious late in the film, one suppresses an urge to hurl something at the screen.

The members of the Sex Pistols so obviously detest one another today that it’s remarkable they managed to regroup for their 1996 reunion tour. That event, a cash-in of monumental cynicism, unsurprisingly goes unmentioned. If we didn‘t know better, we’d think the Pistols dissolved for good after performing ”No Fun“ on the Winterland stage in ‘78. Lydon’s introduction to the band‘s studio version of that Stooges song, released as the B-side of the single ”Pretty Vacant“ in 1977, may stand as an apt description of The Filth and the Fury: ”A little psychology, a little sociology, a little fuckology . . . It’s no fun.“

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