The review is almost beyond the point as Judge Paul Corupe becomes a force for artistic and cultural revolution.
"Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"—Johnny Lydon (AKA Johnny Rotten)
There has been no shortage of films about rock 'n' roll since its inception in the 1950s, and few musical genres have seen as much celluloid action as the turbulent punk rock movement of the late 1970s. Comprising colorful personalities, an anti-art aesthetic and pointed generational clashes, punk on film could be just as indignant and barrier-shattering as the music itself, and no movie better captures that spirit than The Sex Pistols' The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, a film that posits that Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, and the boys were a group masterminded by Malcolm McLaren to scam the overflowing coffers of the music industry. As much of a perverse post-modern joke as it is a punk manifesto, The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle is a strange, exhilarating, and hallucinatory biopic that is just as provocative as the band themselves, a film that makes its way to DVD for the first time in North America courtesy of Shout! Factory.
Facts of the Case
Based on his experiences managing the Sex Pistols, The Embezzler (Malcom McLaren) outlines his recipe on how to swindle the music biz out of as much money as possible to his faithful sidekick, a transvestite dwarf. First, pull together a band of musical incompetents—in this case, The Crook (Steve Jones), The Gimmick (Sid Vicious), The Tea-Maker (Paul Cook), and The Collaborator (John Lydon). Next, build the group to legendary status by avoiding playing shows, constantly disappointing fans and evading critics. Then, turn the media against the manufactured musicians with outrageous public stunts and well-timed attacks on everything the populace holds dear. Lastly, sit back, and let the cash roll in.
While The Embezzler outlines his story of success, Steve Jones dons a wrinkled trench coat and fedora, and hits the dirty streets of London to track the elusive manager down—a mission that leads him into all kinds of deviant back alleys and clubs. Eventually, he winds up at a posh theatre viewing a film called Who Killed Bambi?, and he watches on screen as he and fellow bandmate Paul Cook track down the South American residence of infamous criminal and British exile Ronnie Biggs, and perform a few songs with him.
Originally formed in the late 1970s by clothing shop owner and style impresario Malcolm McLaren, the short-lived Sex Pistols were more than just a band, they were a force for artistic and cultural revolution; the music was almost beside the point. Still, their songs were primal and sonically devastating chunks of vitriol, sneering jabs at England's government and monarchy that at one point had them banned in their native country. From persistent trouble with major record labels to drugs to an ill-fated 1978 American tour that ultimately destroyed the band and led to the death of punk icon Sid Vicious, the Pistol's story is convoluted and enigmatic, the stuff rock 'n' roll legends are made of.
But why let fickle rock journalists and tone-deaf music fans control that myth? As the Pistols started on their shortcut to self-destruction, McLaren devised an idea for a film that would put himself at the center of the Pistols' universe, a serio-comic biopic that would paint himself as the master manipulator whose plan all along was not to change rock music, but to swindle both the industry bigwigs with his carefully marketed Sex Pistols snake oil. Of course, the closest McLaren ever came to actually being smart enough to conceive and pull off such a scam was to make The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, an attempt to simultaneously mythologize and undermine the Sex Pistols. It's a 100-minute-long middle finger to the audience, debunking both the band they love and laughing at them for buying into it in the first place—and what's more punk than that?
Originally envisioned as a fictional mish-mash called Who Killed Bambi? helmed by Russ Meyer, the Sex Pistols' film project was a troubled production from the start, and was eventually passed off on film student and friend of the band, Julien Temple (Earth Girls Are Easy). Jumping off from earlier rock 'n' roll films like Head, A Hard Day's Night and Slade in Flame, The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle is something of a train wreck of egos, an absurd tightrope walk by Temple, who somehow managed to step into Meyer's shoes and pull the film together despite the lack of cooperation from Johnny Rotten (who only appears via archive performance footage), a painfully small budget, and an obligation to the whims of McLaren's mad plan.
As a film, The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle leaves much to be desired by even the most forgiving standards. Structurally, the film is all over the place, jumping indiscriminately from to a naked McLaren lounging in a bathtub to vulgar cartoons, from already-stale concert footage to esoteric images ripped from surrealist shorts. The plot is barely there, and the film frequently tests audience patience with absurd asides and self-indulgent flights of fancy—especially when McLaren is on screen. As a polemic on punk, however, the film borders on brilliant. In building the Pistols up to tear them back down, McLaren is still creating a coherent mythos for the band, and watching the film is in many ways an act of reading between the bloated, misleading lines. It's obvious that McLaren and Temple are having a lark at the audience's expense, and the film works best when it all doesn't seem like one giant in-joke. The Pistols' unprecedented rise to fame is mercilessly satirized with a club sequence in which flashy disco band the Black Arabs perform Pistols covers, and in one Monty Python-esque scene, a theatre ad for popcorn and candy turns into an animated commodification of the band as a whole. There are also some obvious trash film moments here, including an over-the-top Nazi that could have appeared in any of Meyer's late 1970s films, as well as an apparent nod to John Waters' Female Trouble that has Sid Vicious shooting his audience after he croons through a cover of Frank Sinatra's "My Way."
While the DVD of The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle is certainly watchable, it's also pretty down and dirty. Consistent grain and washed out-colors are visible throughout the picture, which is presented in its original full-frame aspect ratio. Sound doesn't fare much better, with a new 5.1 remix offering little improvement over the original cramped and subdued stereo track, which is also included. Dialogue is often muffled and difficult to make out, with only a few musical sequences showing some degree of sonic dimension. Few have probably seen or heard the film any better, but it's still a little bit of a disappointment, as it looks like (again) Shout! Factory has sourced an existing transfer of the film for a North American audience. Extras are a little lean, but what's here is definitely worth a look, kicking off with a 20-minute interview with Julien Temple conducted by Joe Strummer biographer Chris Salewicz. Like the film, it's difficult to make out what's being said sometimes, and the tone is surprisingly dry, but there's some good information being traded on here. Temple and Salewicz return on the equally unexciting commentary to expand on some of the topics they touched on earlier, which will definitely help viewers separate fact from fiction.
A rock 'n' roll swindle? Hardly. The only deception here is on any audience who might expect this intriguing time capsule to offer insight or candid performance footage of everyone's favorite Queen-haters. When you think about it, though, The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle really is the only film McLaren and the Pistols could have made, as intrinsically flawed as it is. Temple, who felt ill-used at the hands of the Pistols' guru, attempted to set the record straight two decades later with the sober documentary, The Filth and the Fury, which, in turn, has revealed the true value of this film as a wildly raucous counterpoint to truth; a flash-frozen souvenir of the end of a musical revolution. Like the Pistols, Shout! Factory's DVD is a little rough around the edges, but it ultimately gets the job done, and should make a nice rental for all but the band's vehement fans.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
• Interview with Julien Temple
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