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Pistols worth another film

PARK CITY, Utah "It's the weirdest thing," Julien Temple was saying. "You look at that old TV news footage of the Sex Pistols today, and they look normal. It's the newscasters who look like freaks."

Temple is the director of "The Filth and the Fury," a new documentary about the Sex Pistols, which was the most notorious if not the most successful of the pioneering punk rock groups. We were at the Sundance Film Festival, awaiting the arrival of John Lydon, still better known as Johnny Rotten, who along with the doomed Sid Vicious fronted the group.

"Odd, isn't it? Temple said. "Me making two documentaries on the same group." His "The Great Rock and Roll Swindle" (1980) was also about the Pistols, but it was told primarily from the self-aggrandizing point of view of Malcolm McLaren, the group's manager. "The Filth and the Fury," he said, is from the band's perspective.

Johnny Rotten arrived in a blaze of flashbulbs, still with the spiky hair and the bad-boy smirk. He was wearing some kind of quasi-religious costume that made him look like a satanic functionary. We had met before, in the late 1970s, when McLaren hired me to write the screenplay for an ill-fated Russ Meyer film, "Who Killed Bambi?," which was to star the Pistols.

"My last memory of you," I said, "was we were in Meyer's car outside an all-night store in London, and you were complaining that McLaren was making thousands and had you on a salary of 12 pounds a week, and you wanted a loan from Russ to buy some baked beans and a six-pack."

"We were sailing," he said, "on the Ship of Fools."

The movie re-creates the extraordinary impact the Sex Pistols made with performances that were not so much music as cries of rage against the British establishment. The band became so notorious that they were banned in many cities, once toured under an assumed name and inspired the retort, "They would be much improved by being dead." Much of the narration is by Rotten, although McLaren is seen, sort of, talking through a bondage mask.

What's clear is that the Pistols then and now had two hated targets: McLaren, always referred to as "the Manager," and Nancy Spungen, described by Rotten as "Sid's heroin dealer-slash-girlfriend." After she started supplying Vicious with drugs, the band began a slide that ended with a disastrous U.S. tour. Nancy was found stabbed to death, and Sid, suspected of the crime, died soon after of an overdose. "My best friend. I couldn't help him," said Rotten, beginning a diatribe against heroin as the worst enemy of creativity.

But after the screening, from the stage, he shouted: "What we fought for, you're benefitting from today!"

It was bad boys' night at Sundance. Earlier the same evening, Emilio Estevez and his brother Charlie Sheen arrived for the premiere of "Rated X," directed by Estevez and starring the brothers as Jim and Artie Mitchell, the San Francisco pioneers of porn whose "Behind the Green Door" grossed $40 million (most of that, they were dismayed to learn, was raked in by the mob, with pirated prints).

Like the Sex Pistols movie, "Rated X" is a cautionary tragedy about drugs. Both Artie and Jim vacuum up so much cocaine that their lives are reduced to snorting, nosebleeds, insanity and despair. Artie wanders the streets of San Francisco like a madman and is barred by his brother from the theater they operated.

Jim cleans up and tries to get Artie into rehab, but his brother falls into psychosis, and finally Jim snaps and shoots his brother dead. The final title cards inform us that Jim did less than three years of a six-year sentence for voluntary manslaughter and today manages a sex theater in San Francisco.

The film sees sex as strictly business for the Mitchells. Artie was the wild concept guy, Jim was the dependable follow-through man, and their mother and father beamed proudly through the premieres of their films.

Briefly, at the beginning, there was some feeling their films could be artistic (Peter Bogdanovich plays their disapproving cinema professor). By the end, they were simply a byproduct of cocaine abuse.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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