Documentary Review: ‘The Public Image Is Rotten’

Review by James Lindorf

The Public Image is Rotten is a documentary following legendary singer-songwriter John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon, the ex-Sex Pistols vocalist and current Public Image Limited (PiL) front man. The film is comprised of archival footage taken over the last 40+ years and recent interviews with current and former band members and managers, as well as his peers from the music world, including Moby, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea. The film from Verisimilitude was directed by Tabbert Fiiller and will be distributed by Abramorama to select theaters in New York City on September 14th.

The film is carried by John Lydon who uses his immense wit, and a high degree of openness to offer a behind the scenes look into possibly the most tumultuous career in punk rock history. When the film starts, the Sex Pistols are at their peak, and only a few months from their infamous collapse. From that point we are given a brief history of John’s life and the impact that a case of meningitis had on him as a child. After looking back, we are given a scattered, but mostly chronological story about PIL and the effect created by the comings and goings of its members since the band’s formation in 1978.

The movie has two main points of focus. First, the majority of the 104-minute runtime is spent delving into who was causing the band its current hardship at any given point. Instead of just being a catty production with Lydon slinging mud at all his former mates for keeping PIL from reaching its potential, Lydon often insisted on the film sharing an honest version of events by allowing the perceived wrongdoers a chance respond to his charges. The second key area is the music itself and how what was most important to John was surrounding himself with the best people to create what he believed to be pure music. While he may have been willing to share credit, it was clear that John was responsible for the majority of the band’s songs and used the music to discuss his views on everything from politics to religion and even the crimes of the day, in the case of songs like “Poptones.”

Fiiller, who is making his directorial debut, made a few poor choices including jumping straight from Lydon as a sick child to a rock legend and ignoring the creation of the Johnny Rotten persona. Then, the film failed to explain Lydon’s frustration with the current state of music or what was the cause of so much discord among band members. We are told over and over that some people didn’t get along, that one of them would eventually leave, but nothing was said about what caused the problem or what pushed the person beyond the breaking point. My favorite elements were the discussions of how they would find replacement band members and the work they put into recording albums when money was in short supply. Fiiller also gave you a sense of time and place by continually referencing the year and location, which is incredibly necessary, as the band keeps repeating the same mistakes in a series of chaotic moments that threatened to tear the group apart.

The Public Image is Rotten could be treasured by diehard fans of either PIL or the Sex Pistols looking for salacious details or previously unknown factoids, however, for novice fans of punk, it may come across as men past their prime airing grievances, reflecting on the good times, and pining for what could have been.

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