As The Sex Pistols rose through the late ‘70s, vocalist/lyricist John Lydon, then known as Johnny Rotten, became the face of a music movement that, for better and worse, forever changed the nature of rock’n’roll. The group famously collapsed in 1978, leaving Lydon with the choice of either quitting music altogether or creating an entirely new brand of chaos borne from the life experience that had brought him to that point. Rehearsals with a couple of old friends soon led to an entirely different band, Public Image Ltd. (aka PiL), who in turn would spearhead the so-called post-punk movement. Now that second and longest chapter of Lydon’s career finally receives a proper documentary under the excellent direction of Tabbert Fiiller.
“…how the original lineup formed, morphed and eventually fell apart…only to rise again in the late ‘80s…”
PiL’s emergence in late 1978 brought something truly unique to the punk pantheon. Their semi-improvised blend of disco beats, dub reggae bass, jagged counterpoint guitar and Lydon’s soaring/sneering vocals owed more to German bands like Can, Amon Duul, and Ash Ra Tempel than The Sex Pistols, The Clash or The Damned. The Public Image Is Rotten tells the story of how the original lineup formed, morphed and eventually fell apart over the course of several records and years, only to rise again in the late ‘80s with an entirely new handpicked lineup under Lydon’s leadership. Almost every single person who ever contributed to the success or failure of Public Image Limited chimes in on their role in molding the band, from the First Edition of Keith Levene, Jah Wobble and Jim Walker through the morphing years with drummer Martin Atkins on to the stabilized late ‘80s lineup of John McGeoch, Lu Edmonds, Alan Dias and Bruce Smith and to the present formation of Edmonds and Smith joined by bassist Scott Firth.
Of course, there’s always a bit of revisionist history in rock documentaries of this sort, but true to his nature, Lydon pulls no punches when discussing the musicians who have marked his life, yet he does so with a regretful introspection, acknowledging that disagreements arose from egos on both sides. His former compatriots follow suit with honest assessments of the man who kept it going despite the odds crashing down upon him. Ultimately, Fiiller has given us the most honest version of events possible with added insight from consistently engaging and charismatic characters.
“…rises to the top of rock documentary filmmaking…”
A few points oddly stand out as missing: Lydon’s brilliant performance opposite Harvey Keitel in The Order of Death and his underrated and tragically ignored 1997 solo album Psycho’s Path. While this is definitely the story of Public Image Limited and not John Lydon, these elements seem integral to the PiL story, making their absence more noticeable. It’s not enough to impact the film but will leave hardcore music aficionados scratching their heads.
Record nerds be damned, The Public Image Is Rotten rises to the top of rock documentary filmmaking with a refreshing sense of candid storytelling only made possible by the genuine frankness of its subjects. The story of Public Image Limited is not just the biography of John Lydon, it’s the legacy of everyone who has ever been involved in it. Tabbert Fiiller has captured this perfectly – a remarkable accomplishment for a directorial debut.
The Public Image Is Rotten. Directed by Tabbert Fiiller. Starring John Lydon, Martin Aktins, Jah Wabble, Jim Walker, Allan Dias and Lu Edmonds.
9 out of 10 stars