The Public Image Is Rotten (2018)
Featuring John Lydon (The Sex Pistols, Public Image Ltd)
Directed by Tabbert Fiiller
Release date: September 14, 2018 (New York)
I could never be willful on a farm. The only things you can antagonize are the cows. – John Lydon (Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, 1994)
It was in San Francisco on January 14, 1978 when John Lydon uttered the off the cuff remark that would become the proverbial eulogy of his intentionally sensationalized punk rock band, The Sex Pistols.
“You ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?,” Johnny Rotten snarled at the Winterland Ballroom audience, while his band unceremoniously petered out behind him. Soon after the break up, Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren legally stripped Lydon of his stage name “Johnny Rotten.” After fronting a rock and roll media phenomenon, Lydon soon found himself broke and his public image confiscated.
Talbert Fiiller‘s documentary The Public Image Is Rotten is structured around a series of interviews with the now 62-year-old Lydon recalling, with some uncharacteristic openness, the rises, demises, and ultimate resurrection of his post-Sex Pistols band, Public Image Limited (PiL). It’s a complicated tale that spans four decades and features an all-star roster of notable line-up changes.
Fiiller does a remarkable job of making sense of the band’s evolution and manages to present their collective story in a cohesive piece that is often more interesting and hilarious than it should be. Lydon’s biting wit is still very much intact, even when recounting the three-month coma and subsequent memory loss he suffered as a child. But the real power of The Public Image Is Rotten is Fiiller’s ability to appropriately celebrate the music of PiL, while rejecting the temptation to over romanticize the film’s protagonist.
“I worked very hard at being Johnny Rotten,” Lydon concedes, against a backdrop of archival footage that is staged to both reinforce more vulnerable moments and contradict the stories seemingly polished by decades of revision. Here, Lydon is presented as-is – an older man armed with the benefit of hindsight, just drinking Coronas and smoking cigarettes, while telling you this outrageous story from various rooms of his Los Angeles home.
Of course the film is peppered with plenty of commentary by famous fans (Flea, Thurston Moore, and Adam Horowitz) contextualizing precious footage of the infamous 1981 show at The Ritz in New York City, as well as the making and impact of seminal albums like Metal Box/Second Edition and Flowers Of Romance. When you get to what is known as “the generic” record or Album (1986), these commentaries will start to surprise you.
The Public Image Is Rotten is an absolute blast, even if you’ve never heard a PiL record in your life. But if you are a fan, you will not only enjoy the movie, but will likely leave the theater curious about the band’s more recent catalog, while already revisiting the familiar albums on the car ride home.
The Public Image Is Rotten opens in New York on September 14, 2018, with a sneak peek screening the night before, where Lydon will introduce the film and do a Q&A. Visit the film’s official site for future screening dates in other U.S. cities.
PIL Public Image Ltd – Banging The Door – Japan 1983