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While his fellow Sex Pistol Sid Vicious went with the tried-and-true path to Rock Myth status, dying early, Johnny Rotten took a different route — ditching the band at the peak of its fame, returning to his birth name to front a new group whose roster rarely stayed the same for long. A cult band that never became a household name or acquired Pistols-level notoriety, his Public Image Ltd is celebrated in Tabbert Fiiller’s The Public Image Is Rotten. A serviceable introduction for those with a passing knowledge of the band or none at all, it will be unconvincing for many viewers who aren’t sure PiL deserves a spot in the punk pantheon. Still, genre buffs will appreciate the doc’s access to Lydon, who is much more relaxed here than in his more formal media appearances.
First-time director Fiiller would seem to be more fan than journalist, assuming that his audience shares his own familiarity with the subject. That is to say that even in a film about PiL, one would expect some scene-setting regarding Lydon’s previous band. Instead, we get offhand remarks from Lydon about his legal hassles with Pistols manager Malcolm McClaren, but little clarification about what happened between them or what justification there was for McClaren’s proprietary feelings over the group.
Vintage interviews (plenty of those here, and they’re usually amusingly obnoxious) find the newly liberated singer talking about how he’s putting together a new band, and present-day sit-downs with key figures fill in the gaps. Early drummer Jim Walker, whose quick departure was much lamented, recalls a “huge undercurrent of potential danger at all times” surrounding the nascent group as they set out to make their first record.
Younger musicians Moby, Adam Horovitz (Beastie Boys) and Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth) attest to the impact of that first record — or at least its first single — with Horovitz saying its bass-forward sound “was like a diagram of how to write a song.” It was the second record, though, that would be their masterpiece. “Metal Box, it changed my life,” recalls Flea, who later would consider leaving the Red Hot Chili Peppers to join the group.
But turmoil plagued PiL. Members came and went, sometimes taking valuable recordings with them and releasing them as their own. Interviewed in lots of relaxed, domestic settings, Lydon is low-key but still can’t shake the chip on his shoulder when remembering some of these betrayals.
Lydon returns often to the subject of his boyhood experience with spinal meningitis and severe memory loss, connecting that trauma to the alienated attitude that would characterize his later musical persona. But Fiiller’s storytelling doesn’t always live up to Lydon’s. An odd effort seems to be made to account for guitarist Keith Levene’s exit from the group without coming out and saying he used too much heroin. At two points, old TV interviews make reference to the long-term relationship that would wind up steadying Lydon’s life, but the movie changes the subject abruptly without really introducing wife Nora Foster until much later. And when the doc accounts for Lydon’s activities between the group’s 1992 breakup and its 2009 revival, it includes TV ad campaigns and trivial projects made for Discovery Channel but ignores his biggest sell-out: participation in nostalgia-act Sex Pistols revivals. That, it seems, doesn’t fit the sharp social-critique-as-pop-art narrative the film wants to present.
Production company: Verisimilitude
Director: Tabbert Fiiller
Producers: Phaedon Papadopoulos, Tabbert Fiiller, Hunter Gray, Tyler Brodie
Executive producers: John Rambo Stevens, Cameron Brodie, Nick Shumaker
Director of photography: Yamit Shimonovitz
Editor: Eric Pritchard
Composer: Dave Wilder
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (SidebarOrSection)
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