|By John Shearlaw|
|THE SEX PISTOLS ON FILM|
THE SEX PISTOLS WERE ONLY IN EXISTENCE FOR 26 MONTHS IN THE MID-1970S BUT THEY CHANGED THE FACE OF ROCK MUSIC HISTORY. IN 'THE FILTH AND THE FURY', RELEASED TO CINEMA AUDIENCES IN MAY 2000, THE FULL STORY OF THIS LEGENDARY GROUP IS REVEALED TO MODERN VIEWERS FOR THE FIRST TIME. IT IS THE FIRST GENUINE FILM ABOUT PUNK. ACCLAIMED AS "THE MOST EXTRAORDINARY FILM DOCUMENTARY I HAVE EVER SEEN" (THE TIMES), THE FILTH AND THE FURY CONTINUES TO SHOCK AND ASTONISH OVER A YEAR LATER. THE FILM IS STILL SHOWING IN AMERICA AND IN JAPAN. IN FRANCE IT WAS ONE OF THE YEAR'S MOST SUCCESSFUL MOVIES.
JOHN SHEARLAW, A MUSIC JOURNALIST DURING THE PUNK YEARS, WAS THE RESEARCHER FOR THE FILTH AND THE FURY. FOR NEARLY TWO YEARS, WORKING ALONGSIDE DIRECTOR JULIEN TEMPLE AND EDITOR NIVEN HOWIE, THE ROLLERCOASTER RISE AND FALL OF THE SEX PISTOLS WAS THEIR LIFE. HERE HE REVEALS THE FULL STORY BEHIND THE FIRST CULT MOVIE OF THE NEW MILLENNIUM...
"What you've seen in any documentary about any band, before or since, is how great and wonderful everything is. That's not the truth of it. It's hell, it's hard, it's horrible. It's enjoyable to a small degree. But if you know what you're doing it for, you'll tolerate all that. Because the work, at the end of the day, is what matters... and we managed to offend all the people we were fucking fed up with."
The words of Johnny Rotten (now known by his real name, John Lydon) come right at the beginning of The Filth and the Fury, Julian Temple's documentary film about the Sex Pistols. Twenty years on, this was the first time the surviving members of the band had co-operated to tell their side of the story. That they found themselves as fully characterised players in a dazzling cinematic drama is a more remarkable achievement still.
Crafted from a vast selection of unseen footage, along with a barrage of vintage images from film, television, music hall, videos and commercials, woven together with raw-to-the-bone voice-overs and interviews with members of the band, then and now, The Filth and the Fury was the long-awaited proof of the lasting impact of one of the few bands who have changed the course of history.
The Sex Pistols were together, as a group, for little more than 18 months. Thy recorded one album, Never Mind the Bollocks, and what would have been their sole Number One single, God Save the Queen, in 1977, was officially excluded from the charts. Yet their approach and their energy were completely different to anything that had gone on before. In little under a year, the group created a firestorm of controversy across Britain and Europe, facing blanket bans in concert halls and on television shows. Battling still to get their music and their opinions heard, the Sex Pistols took on America before chaotically disbanding.
Shortly afterwards, bass player Sid Vicious was arrested and charged with murdering his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, in New York. Three weeks later, freed on police bail, he died of a heroin overdose. Solo careers followed for John Lydon, Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Glen Matlock, but for all the respect accorded to them in different arenas, none has re-created the unique impact of the Pistols in two short years in the mid-Seventies.
Those are the brief facts underpinning the story; 20 years on, a carcass apparently all but picked clean by rock analysts and historians. But for the film-maker Julian Temple, who made his first movie about the Sex Pistols, The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle, in 1979, the intervening years had left him with the conviction that the rise and fall of the Pistols deserved better treatment.
The Filth and the Fury uncovers a period that might as well be the Dark Ages as far as most of today's cinema audiences are concerned. With a title culled from a front-page banner headline in the Daily Mirror in 1976, following the Sex Pistols' television appearance with Bill Grundy (not the first ever "fuck" uttered on telly, but after a barrage of newspaper condemnation and sermons from the pulpit at the time, probably the most famous), this was a film, as Lydon was right to insist, like no other rock documentary.
Way back in 1977, a compilation of filmed Sex Pistols' confrontations was put together on celluloid and shown before concerts - this was the little-seen Number One, the earliest documentary of the Pistols and their time. It wasn't until the Nineties that Temple started to look back at Number One and the other material still available - most of it still largely unseen - and sense that there was something truly extraordinary about those much-catalogued events in 1976 and 1977.
"It was looking at the Pistols walking through Soho and seeing a world behind them that was old and strange and distant," he said. "That to me made the difference, the difference between then and now. As I was looking at it from 20 years on, reacquainting myself with these bizarre moments, I started to think about recreating the time as well as a way of getting the power of the story across."
Prompted by a re-release of the Pistols' song Anarchy in the UK in 1992, Temple began to work on another short filmed compilation. Revised in 1994, Nowhere included Swindle outtakes, television shows, live footage and other rare Sex Pistols' moments. "We showed to try and raise money in the States, with the intention of developing it into a movie," said Temple. "By this time I'd met up with John Lydon again, and the idea was established that whatever happened in would be very much a statement from within the group, not a run-of-the-mill documentary.
"And for me, for the full impact, that has to mean a film. We were just never sure there was going to be enough material. Right up until we finally started - with just a few mute live performances and a few rusty cans of celluloid - we weren't sure if it was possible to try and tell the story."
With Nowhere as a 10-minute template, the project inched forward; at one point rap label Priority in the US came in with a million dollars, only for the deal to fall through. Meanwhile, Temple was also aware of the untapped potential of the near-legendary Sex Pistols' vaults, can after can of exposed film neglected in the back room of a storage facility in Perivale, west London. After a long and draining civil action in the High Court in London in 1987, John Lydon had obtained control of everything under the Sex Pistols' name from their estranged manager, Malcolm McLaren, and his management company, Glitterbest, and so this archive material reverted to the group. Lydon was now keen to get moving on telling the real story.
I first heard the pitch on board a barge, motoring sedately down a West Country canal on a late summer's day in 1998. FilmFour's new heard, Paul Webster, whose first act had been to stick a God Save the Queen Sex Pistols poster on his office wall, was excited by Nowhere and, with the help of film executive Jonathan Weisgal in the US, offered a commission. Temple was back on the Pistols trail.
Also on board was Temple's wife, Amanda, the film's co-producer (alongside Anita Camarata, representing the band's interests in the US) and film editor Niven Howie, fresh from a BAFTA-nominated job on Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. As a journalist who had spent the punk years covering music in Britain and America, I was hired as researcher.
Since moving back from Los Angeles in the early Nineties, the Temples have based themselves in Somerset. Just down the road from their farmhouse is an old cider apple barn that contains a Lightworks film-editing suite. With only the sheep for company, Niven and Temple had already cut one movie, Bullett, here, soon to be followed by Pandaemonium, Temple's upcoming historical drama about Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. The Sex Pistols (working title) was shaping to be film number three - if the promise of great unseen material in the vaults held good, and if the band members stuck to their side of the bargain by doing extensive filmed interviews.
There was a sense, already, of the strength of the unseen material. An interview done with Sid Vicious, an extraordinary figure in a swastika T-shirt, speaking in Hyde Park, for instance, provided an eerily accurate snapshot both of the workings of the band - and of the era. Or there is the tremendously moving footage of a Sex Pistols' Christmas concert in Huddersfield, playing a matinee to striking miners' children, Sid and John hysterical as the kids cover them with cake.
"These four guys created a firestorm," said Temple. "It was an extraordinary period in Britain, where everything changed so much. Out of that firestorm, one guy dies... three end up disfigured, damaged, changed. Looking back, you can see it as a real tragedy. You look around and wonder, who else is doing what they did? Maybe we need the energy of the Sex Pistols again - or at least to see it the way it was at the time. It is so important to reflect that spark. I wouldn't be spending over a year of my life making the film if I didn't believe that."
We searched the visual references, a goal right at the start to immerse the audience in the full Seventies British experience - terrible television, bizarre political heroes, muppet weather forecasters and all - even to the extent of confining the images to those actually shot at the time: the Queen's Silver Jubilee; Harold Wilson; the Notting Hill Carnival riots; the Teddy Boy revival; Gary Glitter's second incarnation; the miners' strike; Edward Heath and the great rubbish pile-up caused by the 1974 refuse collectors' strike. Britain before Margaret Thatcher, that remote and surreal country that lent four dispossessed teenagers a backdrop.
Lydon himself kept up a steady stream of phone calls from his home in Malibu. Ideas and influences, things he felt had been overlooked in the past. "You don't create me... I am me, there is a difference," he scoffed at McLaren, in one of The Filth's show-stopping moments. He was also keen to include some of the laughs so brilliantly absorbed watching Sunday afternoon black-and-white television. "One of the major things that was stolen from the Sex Pistols was our sense of humour," he says now. "What people don't understand is that the Pistols were... music hall. Even in your blackest moments... you laugh."
So, from the Welfare State wasteland to... Ken Dodd and Arthur Askey; Mr Pastry and the Brooke Bond chimps; music hall comedian Max "Cheekie Chappie" Miller; Maggie Norden; Shirley (and Sebastian) Conran; the swan from the Cadbury's Flake ad; television weatherman Michael Fish. Still to come, the late Rod Hull with Emu, Marc Bolan, Bill Grundy, Sting and then, at Lydon's suggestion, the noble figure of Sir Laurence Olivier as Shakespeare's Richard III.
So far, so good. But the vaults only provided part of the early story. Amid the unmarked and mislabelled cans lay nearly 20 hours of footage. Some reel-to-reel videos so old they had to be baked; elsewhere, film cans parted forever from their sound reels. Bills for treatment and transfer were high, and there was a clearance question - not everything we wanted to use had free licence. From Scotland came a package of taped-from-television gems from fanzine archivist Scott Murphy, another treasure trail of copyrights to track down.
By the second month, the past was beginning to come alive. In the barn, the Lightworks screen displayed myriad images of John Lydon and Steve Jones as their youthful selves - picking noses, belching, on stage, off stage, nervous then confrontationally dealing with television interviewers from all over Europe. It was starting to make sense, somehow, against a wall of flickering, scratchy, time-coded images from a distant and somehow innocent time. Or was it? Amid the mass of material, Temple had to find a way to craft the story - and huge segments of the canvas were still blank.
"You are starting with a black hole," he said. "We'd done the initial archaeology, then it was a case of grabbing anything that came to hand to tell the story - the childhood, the background, all the gaps in between the footage we actually had. That was the work here, trying things that didn't work, taking them out, finding things that id. Although we still had to do the interviews, I was hoping that I would be able to get these to reflect and illustrate the story as much as possible."
Even in their prime, the Pistols attracted few serious film chroniclers. Television appearances were equally rare: aside from Grundy there was So It Goes, filmed by Tony Wilson in Manchester; a Brass Tacks special (yielding great live footage and the memorable editorial line, "punk rock... to many people is a bigger threat to our way of life than Russian communism or hyperinflation"); Nationwide; Tonight. Then, perfect for our purposes, a host of foreign television crews who braved - and often provided - the showers of gob to provide some brilliant unscripted punk moments. "Why the infamous language?" asked an incredulous Dutch reporter in 1976. "Infamous language?" questioned Johnny Rotten, simultaneously knotting a Union Jack handkerchief. "I speak nothing but the fucking English language."
The next few months passed in a blur. At the beginning of November, the crucial interviews with the band had been filmed - in dramatic silhouette, at Amanda's suggestion, after Temple ad initially considered not using any contemporary footage at all. Now outlined like figures from an early Crimewatch show, each member of the group took their place in a reconstructed past.
FilmFour arrived to view the work in progress. A few finished sequences. The Grundy episode, now brought to life by Lydon, Jones and Cook's voiced-over recollections. The first rehearsal and concert in dizzying, grainy black and white. A boat trip on the Thames, to promote the banned single God Save the Queen, which ended in manager Malcolm McLaren's arrest. Enough to convince FilmFour's Paul Webster that the movie had a future.
By Christmas, a rough version of The Filth was completed. The spectre of the would-be film being downgraded to a television documentary was briefly raised as the end of the narrative was reached, but Temple refused to back down. Paul Webster again demonstrated his faith, and his admiration, for the Sex Pistols by overruling the doubters and pushing to retain it as a film.
And so to London, bleak midwinter 1999, and, at a screening at Channel 4's headquarters, a rough cut of The Filth was shown to an invited audience, many of them born after 1979. What kind of sense would they make of this recent but alarmingly alien past?
"I started off wanting to tell my boss to 'fuck off'," said one viewer, obviously strongly moved and absorbing the message. "By the end, I decided it would be safer to have an early night." Half the audience thought the Jubilee was a Tube line; several thought Sid Vicious had been imprisoned for murdering his mother. There was uniform surprise, too, at the criticism by the band of former manager Malcolm McLaren. And the movie's climax, the Sex Pistols' messy demise after the final American concert at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco in 1987, showed once again just how divergent McLaren's and the band's view of the past had become.
Now we had to knuckle down to the second part of what temple referred to as "the Kafka-esque nightmare." The first had been finding bits of film - the "found objects" which structured the classic drama - and now we had to track every last piece down to source. As winter turned to spring, I found myself starting to get uncomfortable in the fourth hour of a show at a small theatre near Glastonbury. By the time Ken Dodd starting singing Tears, the opening salvo in what turned out to be a half-hour encore, it was already well gone midnight. Another half an hour elapsed before I got the call. Knotty Ash's greatest living comedian was already trouserless, balancing on one leg and removing his greasepaint. What was he doing in a film about the Sex Pistols, he wanted to know? Because Johnny Rotten likes you, I told him, because you were an influence on him.
To begin with, there had been a curt refusal. Now, at last, Ken Dodd gave his blessing and another third-party clearance was nailed. One down, more than 400 still to go. First you have to wrestle to make a film out of archive; you have to fight even dirtier to get permission to get it shown.
When clip came to camera plenty of others were all too quick to say no. We toiled for hours over faxes and letters to Michael Parkinson; Chuck Berry; an octogenarian songwriter living in New York, who just happened to have a song performed on the Royal Variety Show; the man in charge of the Alice Cooper archive; Emerson, Lake and Palmer; John Wayne's trustees; the manufacturers of Action Man. Whichever way you read the lawyer-speak, the refusal was the same. They didn't want to be associated with the Sex Pistols.
Others would, but only with the condition that their inclusion was not in any way derogatory. Good enough for Joe Stevens, one of the greatest photographers of the punk era, eventually discovered house-sitting on a farm in upstate New York. And, in the back room of an electrician's shop in Norfolk, for the management of Seventies pop group Kenny. In the Isle of Man we managed to convince Rick Wakeman that playing a keyboard with a paint roller was exactly the sort if thing you'd expect a supergroup like Yes to be doing on Top of the Pops in 1974, and we definitely weren't taking the piss.
For the hardliners we tried just one last throw of the dice: Temple delivering his best arguments to Michael Parkinson's manager while walking round the compost heap, a rejected final plea to Emerson (or Lake or Palmer) on the golf course. And while the final version is missing Johnny B Goode, Action Man (tm) and one of the great scenes from Stagecoach, in the end we'd won more than we'd lost.
At the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, for the world premiere, they rolled out the accolades through 48 hours of continuous interviews - Lydon, Jones and Temple each working a separate room - and a hot ticket party in a basement nightclub. Closely followed by an amazing global first: nearly a quarter of a century after the band's messy demise, the new film got a rave review in the hallowed pages of movie trade bible The Hollywood Reporter.
John Lydon didn't make it to Berlin, for the 50th Berlinale International Film Festival in February, that year's second slice of major prestige, but, standing on the showpiece Potsdamer, once the no-man's land between East and West, I got a sudden flashback from the movie. It's one of those screen moments we treasured through the making: Sid Vicious miming furiously outside the Brandenburg Gate for Holidays in the Sun, shot by their then road manager in black and white on an early hand-held video camera, Sid all rubber legs and beer bottle, an infectious grin on his face. He was 19, and he and the band had just over a year to live.
Three days later, in London, The Filth rolled again for a music-business preview at Planet Hollywood, where Hugh Cornwell, once lead singer of The Stranglers, likened the evening to a "school reunion, full of old faces from the past". Yet Liam Gallagher never once took his eyes off the screen. "I feel like I'm in a bit of a boy band now," he said afterwards. "I'm knocked out by it. The best film about a rock band ever, I loved the fact that it was all up there and balanced, and even the dead one had his say." Praise enough for brother Noel to demand his own screening, then the Prodigy, and after them Primal Scream.
And so, a decade after conception and a quarter of a century after the furore, The Filth and the Fury was with us. At the Screen on the Green in Islington, the wheel went full circle when the film was launched at the scene of one of the Pistols' most fondly remembered live concerts (and thanks to the bans, there really weren't that many) back in 1977. This time there was more than money at stake. This time the Sex Pistols were all actors in a widescreen version of the truth.
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