Tribeca Film Festival: ‘The Public Image is Rotten’

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How it’s New York: Documentary aired at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival.
How it’s Irish: Focuses on the work of John Lydon, the London-born son of Irish immigrants.

He’s lived the life, of that there can be little doubt,  and the man at the forefront of Britain, no, the world’s, punk explosion back in the mid 1970s is still living it. Perhaps it’s not the ostentatious existence of obnoxiousness which representatives from other musical genres are, for reasons unknown, proud to display, but John Lydon, a man who shocked, even disgusted, most of the population while enjoying his heyday as the UK’s supposed public enemy Number 1, is still here, and has no plans on going anywhere. His supposed alter-ego, Johnny Rotten, may have been somewhat forced into semi-retirement many years ago, and while the attitude has softened somewhat, and the ironic sneer has metomphorphozed into a cheeky grin, the charismatic personality that some of us loved, and more loved to hate, is here, at Tribeca, and on the big screen.

 

Lydon, who fronted The Sex Pistols, Britain’s most outrageous musical act, for three years before they imploded in 1978, is no stranger to controversy, or indeed, documentaries, having been the subject of a number over the years, most notably 2000’s ‘The Filth and the Fury’, the director of which, Julien Temple, is one of those interviewed for this one.

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John Lydon (right) with director of ‘The Public Image is Rotten’, Tabbert Fiiller.

‘The Public Image is Rotten’, is a new departure with regards to the career of Lydon and his cohorts, as captured via film, however. While the history of the Sex Pistols, and indeed many of those caught up in the artistic and social juggernaut that was punk, has been well documented before, Lydon’s career since then, with the opinion dividing, though musically important act, Public Image, has been less highlighted. It is a band (for they are still in existence), that formed some time after the dust from the Pistols final performance in San Francisco had settled, when Lydon left that group, and during his forced-upon hiatus from the music business, as his former manager Malcolm McLaren pursued him in the courts (a topic which is covered in this documentary).

Lydon formed Public Image Limited, by inviting previously unknown bassist Jah Wobble, drummer Jim Walker, and former guitarist with The Clash, Keith Levene on board, though, as the documentary commences, these names become important footnotes to the band’s history, as all three eventually leave, mostly due to creative differences with Lydon. Other members sign up and also move on, until Lydon is a 38-year veteran with the act. The bickering, disagreements and in-fighting within the band’s circles are a central theme to the documentary, as we witness what may have been, but what turned out to be.

Crucial tidbits of information about Lydon himself are included, such as his life-threatening bout with spinal meningitis as a child, which stole a year from his youth, and left him comatose for weeks, and left him suffering considerable memory loss, leading him to have to rebuild his childhood from scratch, as his memories of his family were vague at best. His love of reggae, and music in general, is highlighted, showing the viewer that there is so much more to Lydon, and indeed Rotten, than the sneering, yet charismatic, punk with attitude.

Director Tabbert Fiiller’s informative work is held together by interviews with an eclectic group of talents, all fans of PiL’s back, and current catalogue. Flea, Moby, Ginger Baker and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, all proclaim the band to be an enormously influential group. Moore describes the band’s second album as;  “the White Album of the underground”, while Flea claims they; ‘Changed my life’. They did indeed change lives, at least musically, but it is a testament to themselves, that while they changed line-ups more than some acts alter their hairstyles, the band’s aesthetic value didn’t deter too much from their original late ’70s incarnation, and while perhaps, they did everything connected with the musical world besides make enormous stacks of money, PiL, will go down as an important cog in the history of the British arts scene, as Fiiller’s documentary will prove.

 

 

 

 

 

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