John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten is pretty damn consistent. If you compare just about every interview that’s he’s done, he’s sarcastic, taunting, and angry. And even though he has plainly mellowed since his wild youth, his intolerance of bullshit seems to lurk just below the surface.
As a poster boy of both punk and post-punk, Lydon articulated the frustration of young people everywhere – and as a musician, he was one of the few who knew that he was always being screwed, and told everyone about it.
The genius of the Sex Pistols era was that the band managed to screw record companies. The peak of Lydon’s revenge was at the band’s last concert in the USA where he snarled: “Have you ever had the feeling you’ve been cheated?” as the band stumbled off stage, never to reappear. It was the the best mic drop line ever.
The Public Image is Rotten 2017 documentary directed by Tabbert Fiiller (showing at the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 10 and 19), barely covers the Sex Pistols years. It focuses mainly on the Public Image Limited story charting Lydon’s journey from youth to the three turbulent years as everyone’s favourite anti-hero.
It seems critical to the whole Rotten story that Lydon had spinal meningitis in his youth. He spent four years of his life in which his memories virtually evaporated, and he became scared and suspicious of these people he thought were pretending to be his family. It also produced the Johnny Rotten death stare.
Lydon seems to have come out of fame with his sanity and his place in music history intact.
Lydon narrates the bulk of the movie through recent interviews or from extended conversations recorded for the film. This is his version of events. It is surprisingly detailed; he clearly takes the art of PiL seriously and shows enuine regret for the departure of several members.
There are surprises – his (and Jah Wobble’s) love of reggae and world music before it was fashionable. This was largely derived from growing up in a multi-race council estate, so in ways the band were the dark angry version of what UB40 became.
Jah Wobble comes across as a right geezer, as he himself said in his biography. He skirts around his youthful violence a little, but lets us know that he was the really vicious one of the four Johns of the mid 1970s, (John Lydon, Wardle (Wobble), Ritchie (Sid Vicious) and Grey).
There’s real emotion around the death of Sid Vicious, who only joined the Pistols at Lydon’s insistence because they were close friends. Despite the constant baiting and sarcasm, Lydon was really shaken up by Sid’s death and it turned him off heroin permanently. Cocaine dabbling aside, drugs seem to have not played the part in Lydon’s life one may have imagined –it seems \his anger and self-confidence carried him through the travails of the band.
Ultimately, Lydon seems to have come out of fame with his sanity and his place in music history intact. He hasn’t become a middle-aged crooner, simply recycling his history; he hasn’t fucked up with drugs and pissed everything up against the wall; he hasn’t disappeared into obscurity.
He is still recognisably the same personality with the same intensity and intelligence that made him standapart from his early punk contemporaries (like, say Captain Sensible of The Damned). At times, he seemed to be the only one in the whole frenetic punk explosion who was able to articulate clearly, albeit with irony, what they were trying to achieve.
The Public Image is Rotten is not at all self-indulgent. It’s direct and to the point as is John Lydon – it’s a fitting document of the story of one of the great outsiders of popular music.
The Public Image is Rotten screens as part of MIFF.