In 1980, Julien Temple made his directorial debut with the infamous Sex Pistols mockumentary The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle. Now, 20 years later, he's returned to that subject with the visceral The Filth And The Fury, a far more earnest film that's nonetheless infused with passion and wit. In the interim, Temple has pursued a career as a pioneering music-video director, working with artists as disparate as Duran Duran, Eric B. & Rakim, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Wilson Phillips. He's also directed a handful of feature films, most notably Earth Girls Are Easy and the ambitious British musical Absolute Beginners. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke to Temple about the timing of his new film, making music videos, and the legacy of The Sex Pistols.
The Onion: Why return to The Sex Pistols now?
Julien Temple: Well, there are a lot of reasons. One, I guess we had spoken about it for a while—the band and myself—because we always knew there was interesting footage that hadn't been used. I suppose a certain amount [of incentive] is just having the time to do it. It's a strange project to do, in a sense, because it's very mad to make a film about the same subject in a way. Particularly about a rock band; I don't think I would do that about any other band. But you weigh those things, and things you're not meant to do are often the best things to do, you know? I always felt there was kind of a millennial aspect to The Sex Pistols. I think [critic] Greil Marcus and other people have picked up on that. It does seem a particularly good time to do it, partly because no one has actually gone further than The Sex Pistols, I don't think, in that cultural music arena. They still challenge people. I think in many ways—and we found this out when we tested the film in England—a lot of the younger kids thought it was a fictional piece, beyond Spinal Tap. They thought it was actors playing the part of deranged rock stars, or whatever they thought they were. And I think in that context, when a generation of kids is that ignorant of their recent history, it does a good job of showing what the Pistols were standing for. It's current and it's in the air, partly because I think nothing contemporary is as extreme or as strongly stated as what The Sex Pistols were able to do in their time, in the '70s. I think the reason to [make the film] is that their ideas are still alive: the defense of the right to be an individual, and questioning everything you read, and questioning all the information that's bombarded increasingly at you. It's more important than ever, with the opening of the floodgates of information from every corner, to stand up and say that the most important thing about us all is the fact that we're all individuals who can think for ourselves. It's a very defiant cry that's worth paying more and more attention to.
O: Speaking of countering misinformation, in many ways The Filth And the Fury is an answer to The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, which you also directed. The films present very different ideas of what The Sex Pistols were about.
JT: Yeah, but I think the sort of linear concept of one thing answering the other is a bit simplistic. I think that with any event of this kind, involving the kind of characters around them and the effect they had on the world around them, there are many versions of the truth. I wouldn't say that it's a kind of straightforward rebuttal of ideas in The Rock 'n' Roll Swindle. That was made at a very different time with a very different purpose: specifically in the immediate aftermath of that band at that time, to display the aura of pop divinity as fake. You know, kids were idolizing them in the same unthinking way they idolized The Bay City Rollers or Rod Stewart in England. And The Rock 'n' Roll Swindle was meant to be kind of a mischievous joke taking the piss out of this band that was supposed to be the saviors of the world at that point for a lot of kids. I think it was an important thing to do, questioning the belief in things that challenged you to question the belief of things in the first place.
O: Was [former Sex Pistols manager] Malcolm McLaren involved at all with the new film?
JT: In this film, no. He was involved to the extent that we used taped interviews, but it was very much the band's version of what it was like to go through that process, which in a sense is like a firestorm they went through. It's meant to be a lot more of a human film than the kind of Godardian Rock 'n' Roll Swindle. It's more about the reality as it appeared to the people who were actually in that band. I see it more as a complementary addition to the whole canon of Sex Pistols-obsessional material, in a way. I think Greil Marcus' take on it [as seen in his book Lipstick Traces: A Secret History Of The 20th Century] and Jon Savage's take [as seen in England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock And Beyond], they're all valid. Malcolm's take is valid. But this is the band's take.
O: What's unique about The Filth And The Fury is that it does more than those other works to humanize the band members. You have people who idolize Sid Vicious, but he's really a tragic figure. I found it remarkable in your film when John Lydon broke down talking about his death.
JT: Well, yeah. So did I!
O: He doesn't usually break character like that. I'm sure you'd never seen that happen before.
JT: No, it was very surprising to me. It was an awkward moment, as well, because I don't think John usually sees himself as coming across like that. It was a strange moment, but I think that moment tells you a huge amount about things that a lot of words couldn't say.
O: You obviously went through a lot of archival footage to assemble The Filth And The Fury. What didn't make it into the film?
JT: The main stuff that isn't in the film is just more live footage from the same gig. It's not as though there were other gigs that we unearthed that we didn't use. There were more songs from the gigs we did use. I don't know, there may well be some more stuff out there, but we were quite thorough in trying to track down even stock that Adam Ant had shot when his band played with The Sex Pistols. Anything that was relevant we tried to find and look at. There's nothing inherently shocking, other than more stuff from the same sources.
O: Did the band members have any say over what was included or excluded?
JT: It was always a joint project between myself and the band, so I was aware of trying to convey, in my own way, their side of the story and their feelings. So I think that once that was established, I was quite free to do what I wanted, and I did. They never made me change anything, actually.
O: In the last 20 years, you've worked with many artists who couldn't be more different from The Sex Pistols. When you saw that footage again—after working with everyone from Duran Duran to Wilson Phillips—was it as you'd remembered it?
JT: I always remembered it. I was always very fond of that time. But actually doing the film and getting into it again was very energizing, yeah. I think you have to take on, to an extent, the personality of the film you're making while you're making it. It did affect me. I hope… I've tried to stay true, in my own fashion, to the ideas of The Sex Pistols, even while I was working with bands like Duran Duran or the Stones, whoever it might be. The thing that was attractive to me personally about videos in the beginning was that it was uncharted territory, and in a sense the record companies didn't know what they were doing. So you could continue to play around with ideas that were not necessarily mainstream. I would try to have a sense of humor and an independence with video making, rather than flattering teddy bears or whatever, like a lot of these videos do. I think that was an interesting form at that time, because in the early '80s it would carry out across the world. It might be the middle of the night, but you could have [a video] out there in Japan or Brazil in just two weeks' time. It was quite an immediate thing. There was a certain freedom there in the beginning that I think it may have lost, to an extent.
O: When you're working with someone like, say, Janet Jackson or Whitney Houston, are they familiar with your background?
JT: Uh, I doubt it.
O: Did you sense that they were at all aware of bands like The Sex Pistols?
JT: Well, Janet Jackson, no. But Eric B. & Rakim, when I worked with them, they were very aware of The Sex Pistols. Tupac Shakur and Neil Young were. It depends who they are. Janet Jackson is obviously quite an insulated case, as is Whitney Houston. But I think they were aware of my fondness for Hollywood musicals of the '50s. When I worked with Janet Jackson, I learned that she and Michael used to dance in front of the screen to Absolute Beginners in their mansion together, which is a funny idea for me. [Laughs.]
O: It seems strange to me: Those are people The Sex Pistols would have despised, and probably still do, but it's ironic that they probably had no idea they were despised.
JT: Obviously, both of those people didn't exist when The Sex Pistols were around, but I agree that they do represent a similar kind of problem that The Sex Pistols were confronting.
O: When you were making The Filth And The Fury, did you intentionally approach it like a video director might—with more flash—or did you consider making it more straightforward, like a conventional documentary, with less flash and less fancy editing?
JT: Well, I'm not a documentary maker, per se. I see this film as a movie, not as a documentary in a… I don't know what the conventions are, really. It's certainly not a television-styled documentary. The editing style goes way back to when we used to make films before the Pistols. When they were banned, we would film stuff off television and re-edit TV shows, chop it up, and show films before their gigs. So that cut-up style was very endemic to the ideas of the Pistols, I think. I wanted to get a lot of information across in a short time, as well, so I wanted to not have a linear approach to it. It was very improvised. We were actually one of the first people to have a video machine in the U.K., where you could tape, because we were trying to tape their TV performances, some of which are in the film. The TV companies had [erased] some of them, as well, so the only copies that existed were the ones we taped. Spinning off from that, I would tape lots of movies, and in the movie breaks I would be taping ads and news reports and weather reports. That's really what I mined, and I would come across things and try them out to see how they work. It was a very cut-up kind of approach. But I think when you're trying to recapture a sense of time and place, that's quite a good way to do it, because that's the way you experienced living in a place. It's very random. It's not a kind of researched archival quest. Most documentaries have a line, and they find material to fit that line rather than coming across material and seeing how that can change the way you're doing things.
O: How would you say the attitude toward The Sex Pistols has changed throughout the U.K. over the last 20 years?
JT: I think 20 years is a long time, so there have been changes throughout that time. There was a sense of them that ties into that group not realizing they were a real band, that no one could be that way because the story is pretty outrageous. But I think what happened in the last few years is that there are a lot of bands coming out of the U.K. now where the only real models are The Sex Pistols, not people like the Stones or the kind of classic rock figures. It's The Sex Pistols, because their attitude is still very modern. They haven't been outstripped. I think there's a great awareness among cutting-edge kids that these people were very important in their time and actually defined our time, in some ways. I always found it strange when I was making this film that the Pistols came across as very modern contemporary figures, whereas the newscasters and weathermen and chat-show people were kind of monstrous freaks of nature. Obviously, at the time, it was completely the other way around: The Sex Pistols were seen as some mutant virus, and these people were normal. Many things have changed in our culture here in England as a direct result of the Pistols: the whole street-fashion thing in London, for example, or the coverage of popular culture in the national press, or the fact that the film industry is now about young people making films about young British issues. All those things are completely different. Even after the '60s… I think the '60s had more of a kind of patronizing attitude toward youth, or toward young people doing things. But the Pistols blew that away. They said, "We aren't fucking around, we want to do it now, we're just as good as anyone else, and we have just as much to say as anyone who is older than us." And that had a big effect on our country. I think it did on America in the end, after the whole Seattle thing. It took longer to kind of come over as a mainstream idea in the States, but I think it's had as big an impact. The main thing I hope is that we can get younger kids, as well, so it's not just people who know some of the answers already.