In a world of neatly-packaged popstars and pre-fab “punk” bands, it’s hard to remember a time when music seemed truly dangerous. But when the Sex Pistols scandalized Britain, in 1976, with televised obscenities and anti-government rants like God Save The Queen and Anarchy In The UK it was, clearly, not the work of some ultra-slick P.R. firm. Julien Temple’s documentary attempts to chronicle the band’s short,incendiary story and succeeds only part of the time.
The most compelling element of the film, as you might expect, is the live footage of the band. Johnny Rotten, in particular, is a stunning presence–wild-eyed and energetic, he commands the stage at all times. But Temple’s choice of syncing canned studio recordings to the live performances rings hollow. And in the recent interview segments with bandmembers, they’re seen only in silhouette. It soon becomes a tiresome gimmick.
Some of the most morbidly interesting archival footage is of the infamous, goofy, doomed couple Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. Spungen comes across as a ’70s version of Courtney Love—minus the platic surgery and press savvy. Vicious, for his part, comes across as a none-too-bright casualty of fame. She and Vicious are mindlessly hellbent on destruction, and, paradoxically, their near catatonic, heroin-addled moments onscreen together are among the most powerful in the film. When Vicous is interviewed after Spungen’s death he is a broken man.
The subject of Vicious’s own demise gives a small window into the actual feelings of Johnny Rotten as he momentarily breaks down over the loss of his friend. Original bassist Glen Matlock, guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook all take a more pedestrian role in the proceedings. However, there’s a funny moment of revelation when Jones admits that he stole his whole act from the late Johnny Thunders–and the two are shown together onscreen–with Jones, obviously, aping Thunders movements and facial expressions. For close to twenty-five years these guys have been living off the Pistols legacy. While this film is a blatant attempt to keep cashing-in, it’s nice to get a look at the days when they–almost by accident–turned the music world on its ear.