There is always tension between the members of a rock group and the mythology that grows up around them. When that mythology is crafted by a self-promoter as savvy as Malcolm McLaren, the man often credited for creating the Sex Pistols, the tension takes on its own mythical proportions.
The frantically invigorating new Pistols documentary "The Filth and the Fury" looks to get beyond Mr. McLaren in search of the truth. Directed by Julien Temple 20 years after his McLaren-driven Pistols film ("The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle"), "Filth" takes pains to give the punks their say. It's also far more watchable than "Swindle," propelled by a frenetic, montage editing style and a sense of detail that places us smack dab in the middle of England's punk revolution.
Mr. Temple began chronicling the Sex Pistols in 1975, a full year before they woke up rock and sent shivers through the English establishment with Anarchy in the UK. He is, for all intents and purposes, their official videographer. Having accumulated hours of vintage footage and maintained enough of the band's trust to get their participation in the new film, the director has updated their legacy for a generation who might think alienation and power cords were first married by Nirvana.
"Filth" may not provide any revelations for hardcore Pistols fans, but even they should appreciate the contrasts with Mr. Temple's earlier ode to pop culture's favorite anarchists. "The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle" was devoted largely to Mr. McLaren's ego and promotional bravado. A pseudo-documentary full of jarring surrealism and Medieval imagery, it often looked like a tame Ken Russell project.
This time, Mr. Temple paints a much clearer, less self-indulgent picture, without sacrificing imagination or energy. Some of the same devices are used, including footage of A&R guys describing their Pistol experiences on the phone and Mr. McLaren breathing through one of his black bondage masks. But the perspective is decidedly that of John Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten), the late Sid Vicious and the rest of the often bickering lads. Filmed individually as silhouettes, they seem to welcome the opportunity to dish on each other - Mr. Lydon and guitarist Steve Jones aren't exactly bosom buddies - and insist that they did not spring from Mr. McLaren's creative loins.
Mr. Temple makes inspired choices in mixing old footage and new interviews with whatever he can get his hands on. A leitmotif features Sir Laurence Olivier playing the humpbacked title role in his 1955 film of Richard III ("Now is the winter of our discontent"), implying a public perception of the band as a dangerous deformity of nature. Speaking in 1977, stiff-lipped London Councillor Bernard Brook Partridge wouldn't argue: "I think the Sex Pistols are the antithesis of humankind. The whole world will be better for their non-existence."
But if doubts remain that the Sex Pistols were more than a mere product, the sight of Sid Vicious should assuage them. Hired to play bass even though he barely could, he pioneered the pogo, became a symbol of the band's discontent and grew entangled in the web of one Nancy Spungen (as dramatized in Alex Cox's "Sid and Nancy").
In his "Filth" interviews, Sid comes across as a bright, confused kid caught up in the frenzy of fame and heroin. You want to reach up and tap him on the shoulder, tell him to quit the smack and find a new girlfriend before he does something stupid. He feels eerily alive and far too real to be part of a gimmick or swindle.