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The Filth and the Fury

While countless rock-and-roll acts over the past several decades have managed to tour, get a record contract, make a few music videos, and even make money, very few of them can be accurately described as historical or cultural touchstones. Certainly there's Elvis Presley, who became the first rock-and-roll sensation with a mix of traditional country music and Delta blues, and The Beatles proved that pop music could become transcendent in the recording studio, freed from the practicalities of live performances. But if there are just a handful of other rock acts that changed history, one cannot overlook the mercurial Sex Pistols, who burst onto the pop scene in 1976, by some accounts only performed live 50 times, released a handful of singles and one album, and then broke up after just 26 months. But when it was over, the pop-culture landscape was undeniably different. Perhaps more serious academic essays and books have been written about the Sex Pistols than any other band, and three motion pictures have addressed the Pistols phenomenon — Julien Temple's 1980 The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, Lech Kowalski's verité 1980 documentary D.O.A.: A Right of Passage, and Alex Cox's 1986 dramatic film Sid and Nancy. With the arrival of Julien Temple's The Filth and the Fury in 2000, that number is now four, and Temple not only has come up with a vivid tale about these punk icons, but one of the best and smartest documentaries ever assembled about pop music. While popularly considered to be a band of outsiders who wouldn't play by the rules of the rock establishment, the story behind The Sex Pistols (for those who aren't familiar with it) is surprisingly common, and not much different than The Beatles, if much more compressed. Like the Fab Four, the band never would have existed without some clever and ambitious management (for the Beatles it was Liverpool shopkeeper Brian Epstein, while the Pistols were backed by London shopkeeper Malcolm McLaren). Money was often a source tension in both groups, who rarely had a clear accounting of their earnings and never retained as much as they should have. Both groups split up over a debate over the future management of the band. And of course, women became a part of the story. John and Paul may have gone their separate ways with Yoko and Linda — for the Pistols, it was Nancy Spungeon who latched on to bassist Sid Vicious, earning the enmity of his bandmates in the process.

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If it all sounds like a glorified episode of VH-1's maudlin "Behind the Music," Temple's The Filth and the Fury tells a rather thoughtful story, and in a non-manipulative way. Rather than impose a narrative voice on the film, all of the surviving Pistols (Johnny Rotten, Steve Jones, Paul Cook, and original bassist Glen Matlock) are interviewed, and their comments form the narrative drive of the story, even when they conflict with each other. Temple's clever framing device (the current-day Pistols are never seen either, only shown in backlit silhouettes) acknowledges that a lot has already been said, hashed over, and debated about this influential group. History is an interpretive act, fluid by nature and rarely straightforward. Answers often are hard to come by (who quit the band first, Johnny or Steve?), and The Filth and the Fury wisely avoids the pitfalls of definitive storytelling. Temple also uses a wide array of footage for the film, ranging from his first Pistols outing Rock and Roll Swindle (a vanity project for McLaren rather than a serious documentary), the ultra-rare D.O.A. (unavailable on home video for many years now), and an eclectic blend of television shows, advertising, Laurence Olivier's Richard III, and the popular British slapstick comics who Rotten claims inspired him more than any rock-and-roll stars. New Line's DVD edition of The Filth and the Fury offers a great film in its own right, but those who intend to own a copy will enjoy two supplements — a commentary with director Temple (who discusses his unusual methodology behind the project), and the 36-minute documentary "Un-Defining Punk," featuring several interviews with notable members of the London, New York, and L.A. punk scenes in the '70s and '80s. Good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1), Dolby 2.0 Surround. Theatrical trailer, snap-case.

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