I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The Sex Pistols had disbanded some five years before I arrived at Stuyvesant High School, but we would write their lyrics on the walls of the school. We would carve them into our books and our desks and our clothes, and even, sometimes, our skin. Once, someone seized control of the public address system and played a few seconds of one of their songs. The Sex Pistols were prophets of rage, and they inspired some of us to throw chairs out of classroom windows and sing “No Future.” They inspired dreams of revolution that far surpassed what I had earlier learned as a member of a communist youth organization. The Sex Pistols were blasphemous and their music was beyond melody, beyond harmony, rhythm and reason itself. It was difficult to say what each of us heard in their music. There was something profoundly nonhuman about the way it sounded. It touched us, perhaps, because none of us felt particularly human in high school. We were the flowers in the dustbin.
I first saw Julien Temple’s The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle during that same period of my life, cutting classes to watch art films in an uptown revival house. I remember being very disappointed by it. There was something missing from its jokey, bubblegum surface. “Who killed Bambi?” indeed. The film was largely seen as a vehicle for Malcolm McLaren, the impresario who, for much of the 1980s, claimed to have invented the Pistols. Yet, this was meant to be an intimate portrait of the group from a man who knew them well. Temple was at film school when he came across the Sex Pistols in 1975. He began filming the band with borrowed equipment and later incorporated some of this footage into The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. Twenty years later, Temple has crafted a revisionist portrait of a moment in history from the hours of footage that were discovered rotting away in a British storage facility. This time around, Temple places the Sex Pistols within the history of British image making and the savage economic climate of the time. He makes explicit the lineage from Shakespeare to Benny Hill to Johnny Rotten. It is an exhilarating film. It is even smart. I don’t know if it’s any closer to the truth of the Sex Pistols (“Film lies at the speed of 24 frames a second,” writes the Critical Art Ensemble). But it does suggest that the art of the Sex Pistols was something more than a cynical marketing strategy. And it makes more clear what that inhuman scream was that we all heard echoing over our high school public address system. The scream was a soundtrack to that magical moment of the form endlessly becoming a commodity.
Lawrence Chua Tell me about the genesis of The Filth and the Fury. Your own trajectory as a filmmaker is intertwined with the story of the Sex Pistols. You directed The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle back in 1978. Was there a reason why the Sex Pistols story had to be told again now and as a documentary?
Julien Temple I was very connected with the Sex Pistols. And they changed not only my life, but most of the conditions that dictate how you can work and what you can do in the U.K. Without them, the British film industry, which is now mainly driven by young people, wouldn’t have happened. At that time, making films was all, “Come back in 30 years and we might consider allowing you to direct something.” The same goes with London fashion. That whole street fashion thing came from the Pistols, really. They changed what was possible to achieve when you were young. Making the film was interesting. I hope the film is partly about the difference between that time and now. It was funny to realize, in making it, that we’d seen a complete reversal. The Pistols seem like modern and normal contemporary figures in The Filth and the Fury, but the newscasters and the chat show hosts and all the authority figures who represented normality and reality in 1978 now look like the freaks of nature that the Pistols were seen as then. When the Pistols sang “We’re the future, your future,” in many ways they were. It wasn’t an empty boast. I would not make this kind of film about any other rock band. Certainly two films about a rock band is insane, but the Sex Pistols were always far more to me than a rock band. Nothing since them has been as extremely or powerfully stated. No one has got near what they achieved within the context of music, except perhaps some of the early hip-hop. The impact of early hip-hop on the black community had a similar sense of talking directly about what life experience was for that audience. Nothing has gone further, but there’s a whole generation that doesn’t really know about the Sex Pistols. When we tested the film in England, a lot of young kids who came to our screenings thought it was fiction, that these were actors playing some kind of mad, deranged, beyond-Spinal Tap story. So I think it’s important that their message of individuality, and being yourself, and questioning everything is kept alive in a world where you’re bombarded more and more with information that you’re meant to simply accept. It seems to be a very important time for the Sex Pistols’ voice to be heard, because people are being encouraged not to think anymore.
LC And why a documentary? Why this particular form?
JT I wanted to make a human story told from inside the experience of what it was like to be in that band, to be in that time and try to explain the effects of going through a firestorm like that. You can’t help but get burned, and obviously Sid didn’t get out of it. The others are badly scarred, I’d say. And that’s a very human story. If you can find a personal way in, then the other larger political issues and so on have an accessibility and a resonance for people.
LC In The Filth and the Fury, you take great care to place the Sex Pistols in the historical context of what was happening in England during the ’70s. You also contrast the ways that the Sex Pistols were understood and misunderstood in both the U.K. and then later in America. John Lydon/Johnny Rotten says in the film that when they toured in 1978 he didn’t know what America was about. Your most recent interviews are with both musicians [John Lydon and Steve Jones] in their homes in L.A., right?
JT Right. They obviously know a lot more about it now. (laughter)
LC A main point of the film is that the Sex Pistols were a uniquely English phenomenon. There is a kind of surprise that anyone outside of the U.K. could possibly have understood what the Sex Pistols were making noise about.
JT It’s probably true that the experience of English kids at that time was a lot more extreme, certainly than what most of white America knew. The ’60s and ’70s had an affluence that wasn’t available to many people in England, comparatively. There was a harshness of conditions in England and a breakdown of normal, functioning reality, as images such as the garbage strikes show. The anger of these people was being expressed in extraordinarily confrontational ways. The Pistols came out of that. When they reached an American audience, those extreme feelings were not understood in the same way. However, ten years later, with the whole Seattle grunge movement, there was a more honest approach to the problems of American youth. Growing up in a suburban, middle-class experience in America was seen differently, and the ideas of the Sex Pistols made more sense. It seems to me that the first time around, America didn’t really get the Sex Pistols. But the idea never really went away, and people like Kurt Cobain explored it in an American context and it suddenly made a hell of a lot of sense. In a way, American Beauty is almost what was going on 20 years ago, but it’s taken Hollywood that long to get around to being able to make a film about it.
LC Greil Marcus has written about the Sex Pistols making a new culture out of old chords. Malcolm McLaren was also very good at placing the Sex Pistols into a broader context of art history. He made apparent a lot of relationships between punk culture in general and the provocations of the artists associated with the Situationist International.
JT One of the things that The Filth and the Fury does is to challenge that theoretical take on the Sex Pistols as the whole story—that this was a manipulated series of events, and ideas from European art and political movements were somehow injected into these kids. These kids actually came pretty well formed, with their own versions of anarchy and anger and outrage. They didn’t need to have middle-class art school students telling them how to express those things. I think that’s an important consideration to put alongside all the Greil Marcus and Jon Savage theories, to see the actual people involved and what made them write the lyrics that they wrote and make the music that they made.
LC You do a good job of debunking the notion that the Sex Pistols were solely the project of an impresario like Malcom McLaren. But do you feel that there’s some kind of conflict between those two points of view? In The Filth and the Fury, John Lydon insists that the Sex Pistols were this expression of pure, working-class rage. Did you feel as if you had to sacrifice one way of looking at the Sex Pistols’ history in order to tell what you considered the truth about them?
JT I think that the truth is in looking at the Pistols in a number of ways. And I don’t think The Filth and the Fury is the whole truth any more than The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle was. Interestingly, the two together are elements of a bigger truth than each is on its own. And even within The Filth and the Fury, I like the Rashomon aspect of the story. It’s in any band really, the way different band members see the same event—but it is particularly extreme, as everything is in the Sex Pistols. You can have exactly the same event and totally different versions of what was going on from John or Steve or Glen or Sid. So I don’t think there’s any one objective truth. All these ideas or ways of looking at things that are sparked off by the Sex Pistols are relevant.
LC Just before, you were talking about the story of the Sex Pistols as a “human” story, and I was wondering if you could talk a bit more about what you mean by that. It seems that so much of punk, and particularly the Sex Pistols, was about not being a human being, about challenging the limitations of Western humanism. Looking at The Filth and the Fury, I’m reminded of how much the Pistols seemed to be attempting to move into posthuman territory.
JT There was an extremism to punk that turned a lot of traditional, emotional ways of behaving on their head. But I know through living with these people that obviously they were human and couldn’t avoid being cauterized by the media radiation chemotherapy they went through. I’ve seen people cry at the end of The Filth and the Fury and that is the last thing you would expect from a Sex Pistols film: to make you fucking weepy about the Sex Pistols. But there is something very moving in the film, particularly in Sid and John’s interaction, because they were strong friends. Even if you’re a punk you can have feelings of love and friendship.
LC You’ve said that The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle was meant to be a comic puncturing of the hero worship around the Sex Pistols at the time. Looking back at the film, how successful was it at doing that?
JT It was successful, on one level, in that it outraged people who expected more of a hagiography. It was a comedy, a piss-take of this pure, wonderful thing. It offended a lot of people, which was good because everything the Sex Pistols did was predicated on trying to do that. In a way, the black humor of the joke became accepted in some quarters as the reality of it: that this whole thing was planned and it was a master scheme, that it was all a swindle and a joke that we were having. I think maybe people believed that side of the story too strongly in the end.
LC You’ve worked in Hollywood. You’ve worked with stars like Jim Carrey and Geena Davis. And in The Filth and the Fury, your point of view is very critical of the iconography of stardom. You shoot the surviving members of the Pistols with backlighting so we can’t really see their faces. Isn’t stardom something that’s crucial to the myth of rock and roll?
JT Yeah, but I said I wouldn’t make a film about a rock and roll band. The Sex Pistols were always far more than that. I’m not at all interested in rock and roll stardom. I never was. That’s why the Sex Pistols were wonderful. I was always interested in what people were saying and what the music did to me rather than whether the people were stars. And actually, the more you work with big stars, the less impressed you are.
LC No matter how critical the Sex Pistols were of fame and stardom, they played the game. They became stars and as stars they became proof that the system worked. They became symbols of a certain success. Before, you were talking about the Pistols’ impact on the culture at large and you mentioned the reversal of power that has occurred over the last 20 years. People that were in positions of power then are seen as utter freaks now, whereas the Sex Pistols seem to be much more the norm. You brought up the lyric, “We’re the future, we’re your future,” but the other part of that lyric is, “There’s no future for you.” Do you see that exchange of power as a kind of defeat?
JT There are huge elements of defeat in what’s happened. The freedoms that were opened up by the Sex Pistols, such as the freedom to make a movie when you’re young in England, the freedom to wear whatever you liked, have become industries like the London fashion business where they Hoover up any new idea as soon as it appears on the street and corporatize it and sell it back to you before it’s able to do anything on its own. That is a very difficult climate to effect any sense of challenge and change what’s going on—because this system is so gluttonous now that it’s got to have everything as soon as it emerges. Obviously the Internet is speeding things up faster and faster. To achieve the kind of shock and space that the Pistols opened up—to talk directly to kids and make them explore themselves—is harder now than it was before. But I think the ideas of the Pistols—and I don’t think that anything has really gone beyond them in a musical or cultural context—are really valid. They are more and more valid the less that people are able to think for themselves—which seems to be the game plan. You have clues of this kind of hollow democracy everywhere, based on the idea that people no longer think. They can vote, but they can’t think. Then the cry, the anger, the extreme howl of the Sex Pistols questioning the world you find yourself in seems more and more important.
LC There was a great deal made about the subversive qualities of punk. It was something that was going to subvert all the old ways of thinking and yet, at its most potent, it was too smart to be interpolated into this binary reaction to corporate culture. It was not going to be co-opted in the ways that the counterculture that preceded it had been.
JT Well, it did subvert things in many ways, but they were quickly reasserted. It’s like an inoculation, isn’t it?
LC Yes. Capitalism is a healthy virus. Today we don’t think so much about the morality of selling out, but about the glories of buying in. How do you see your own trajectory as a filmmaker in that context? You’ve come out of the same historical moment as Johnny Rotten/John Lydon and Malcolm McLaren. How do you keep from becoming cynical about that virus, and its ability to keep getting stronger and stronger?
JT I don’t know. It was good to revisit it and do it again and realize that those ideas still connect strongly to me and can still inspire people who are exposed to them. The power is in being able to explore the things that you’re interested in, and communicating your feelings and thoughts. It’s not about becoming part of the Hollywood hierarchy, or suffocating with too much money. Those are some things you can learn by remembering why you began in the first place. Hopefully, you retain that … if you don’t lose sight of where you came from.
LC Can you say a bit about your relationship with the British film industry and with Hollywood? What kind of films are you interested in making now?
JT As I was saying, when I started making films it was a joke if you were young and wanted to make a film. They would literally say, “Fuck off and come back in 30 years and we might listen to you if you’ve got a nice gray beard.” Whereas now it’s the other way around. Film should be made at any age, obviously, but it was a shame that you couldn’t do anything when you were young. British films have had some success—which is good, and also bad. It opens up the possibility of doing more things than certainly used to be the case. But it also then imports an American model, where if you have a successful film the next thing you want to do is ten more exactly the same. When you hardly had a successful film industry here, you didn’t have the luxury of copying. My relationship with Hollywood is pretty nonexistent at the moment. I’ve been working here, in Britain, making films for much less money, but with a lot more freedom.
LC What are you working on at the moment?
JT I’m just finishing a film called Pandemonium about the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, and their relationship at the end of the 18th century.
LC Which, at the surface, seems quite a leap from the milieu of The Filth and the Fury, but actually is a pretty smart follow-up. Did you plan it that way?
JT Although it’s Jane Austen’s time, the film is a very, very different facet of that world. In the 1790s these guys were extremely rebellious, as much as the Sex Pistols were in their times. They also broke the mold and changed things in hugely important ways. Obviously, they were tremendous poets who created 19th-century thought on many levels: the whole notion of the romantic in the 19th century and the reappraisal of nature and so on. What they were doing with words was like what the Impressionists were doing with paint eight years later. Coleridge was exploring the territory of the mind a hundred years before Freud. He took amazing leaps. He was much more than just the first junky of letters, he was a very modern thinker. And a lot of the concepts that are key to our world were his concepts. Psychosomatic is his word, the suspension of disbelief is his phrase, for example—these are just some of many things. Hopefully the film has quite a modern resonance to it. I think it’s important to try and make people engage with the past, because if you lose the past, the future becomes very … scary.
LC In The Filth and the Fury you did a very good job of showing the long history that fed the Sex Pistols, going back to Shakespeare.
JT I never thought that the past wasn’t important. It was very important to have something to rebel against, obviously. The whole energy of punk was predicated on kicking against the past and kicking it over. So in that sense it was important. But in the film I try to show that some of the past even beyond rock and roll history was very important to the Sex Pistols’ psychology, and the whole musical, vaudeville background that they were immersed in. There was a black humor that ran through them as a group that made them very different from a lot of the other punk imitators that came after.
LC Maybe that was also a response to the utter frustration of being a Sex Pistol. Throughout the story you tell in The Filth and the Fury, controversy confounds any attempt at really appreciating the art of what the Pistols were doing. Yet you’ve chosen to name the film after a famous headline about an infamous Pistols appearance on the “Today” program. Was controversy something that could have been dispensed with, in terms of the history of the Sex Pistols? Was it necessary for record sales?
JT Well, obviously it did help sell records, although they never did sell huge amounts of records at the time. The biggest selling single was Sid’s version of “Something Else.” It sold more than “God Save the Queen” or “Anarchy” or any of the others, which is interesting. But it’s a complicated question. I mean, it seemed to me that they could not help being controversial because of the way they behaved as a unit. It was, by definition, controversial when they walked into a room. There was a sense that this controversy had achieved a lot—so much so that it became as important as anything else to create the next controversy, as well as the next single. You know, Where’s the next controversy? And that probably contributed to the thing ending. I think, as John says, it was right that it should end. When the music receded as the source of the energy—it’s like living without water or something—it was only a matter of time. And I think that’s a good thing.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee