Punk Goes Rock and Roll in ‘The Public Image is Rotten’

‘The Public Image is Rotten’ is a silly documentary about a serious band.

“To tolerate me for so long is remarkable,” John Lydon joked at the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of The Public Image is Rotten, Tabbert Fiiller’s curious ode to Lydon’s post-Sex Pistol’s project, Public Image Ltd (PiL). With unprecedented access to one of the most pointed symbols of punk culture still breathing, the documentary manages to be immensely illustrative even it doesn’t illustrate a whole lot.

Lydon’s version of punk is, after all, the power of negative energy and of occupying negative space; what is not on display is often more illustrating than what is. Like with both the Sex Pistols and PiL, Lydon is the domineering force behind the film, and his lack of interest in punk as either a culture or a fashion statement or as as a political gesture becomes The Public Image is Rotten’s unstated thesis.

In the place of punk as cultural statement, Fiiller has ostensibly made a documentary about punk as a musical unit or at least about the seven or eight records made under the PiL name. To do so, a collection of former band members are brought in. Even Bill Laswell, who produced Album (mostly known as the one with “Rise” on it), joins via phone.

The presence of all these heads draws attention to the movie’s significant absence: Keith Levene, the architect of much of PiL’s sound who left the band in acrimony in 1983. In his place, Lydon meanly disparages Levene’s drug use and that, combined with a series of ominous zoom-outs that Fiiller uses on the black and white photos of Levine, left me thinking that Levene must have died at some point. Nope: he’s still doing interviews with blogs and recently launched an Indiegogo campaign to re-release the collection of PiL recordings that he infamously put out in 1983 without Lydon’s approval. The two have not, it appears, reconciled.

Lydon has been in the news recently for his thoughts on Donald Trump and Brexit (Lydon did not, however, use the premiere to amend any of them or provide any new ones during the lengthy chat with Variety’s Cynthia Littleton that followed). But The Public Image is Rotten explains the appeal of Trump and Nigel Farage to Lydon’s version of punk. A line like “Oh don’t pretend ‘cause I don’t care/I don’t believe illusions ‘cause too much is real,” (from the Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant”) can express both withdrawing in disgust and apathy.

The Public Image is Rotten presents a Lydon driven to farthest end of the latter by a childhood bought of spinal meningitis — an element of rock mythology akin to the childhood accident that gave Bowie different-colored eyes. Lydon, in his second memoir, Anger is an Energy, attributes that year in a psychiatric hospital to his hypnotic freak-punk stare. In The Public Image is Rotten, he describes it as a year of his life that he “forgot who I am” and situates his lifelong rabid paranoia directed at colleagues and establishment figures alike as a natural response.

Fiiller is able to capture some of this drama: Lydon, mohawked in his sixties and comfortably knocking back Coronas in his Los Angeles home, lively raves on about how Jah Wobble, PiL’s first bassist, “stole” backing tracks from the band’s sophomore effort in order to record his own solo album well over 30 years ago. Wobble, at least, is in The Public Image is Rotten but looks justifiably confused when Fiiller brings the subject up. Former drummers, in turn, testify to their sudden replacement.

And as to the music, Thurston Moore, Flea and, most bizarrely, Moby are brought in to testify to PiL’s importance and influence. It’s obviously a superficial argument and does the music itself something of an injustice. Moby, especially uncharismatic, gamely talks about having to listen to The Second Issue twice in order to “get it.”

From post-rocking Chicago troubadours to the New York dance-punk scene of the early 2000s, PiL’s influence is as cavernous as Lydon’s more celebrated prior band. Just listen to The Rapture’s repurposing of PiL’s “Careering” for the title track of their debut (later famous as the theme song for E4’s cult hit Misfits). So what, that Lydon didn’t kill himself like his erstwhile bandmate but went on instead to make a series of successively mediocre records that continue to this day?

The Public Image is Rotten is organized somewhat chronologically: the changing years and locales that Lydon lived in flash in brief epileptic bursts. Album art similarly appears every so often, and clips from music videos mix up the talking heads and brief glimpses of newspaper headlines.

Fiiller attempts to do some justice to the band’s aesthetic politics: PiL’s infamous 1981 show at the Ritz is given play-by-play coverage — it was their New York debut and they played it behind a 40-foot-high projection screen. The show was was cut short by fears it would degenerate into a riot. But it was also a rejection of the fiction of “the rock concert” decades before people would pay hundreds of dollars to watch Radiohead at Coachella from gigantic screens, and it’s clear Fiiller is unsure what to do with it. He snatches Moore, who attended, to tell us it was one of the best shows of his life but cuts him off before he can say why.

Not covered is the band’s history as one of the preeminent entryways for now-iconic American punk bands to reach wider audiences for the first time. Their American tours would include openers like the Minutemen, Mission of Burma and Minor Threat — most of whom, per Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, Lydon treated with notable disdain.

The decision to turn to stock rockumentary figures like Flea, Moby and a very square looking Moore (now something of punk’s lecherous father figure), feel contrived to refuse sincere engagement with the band’s legacy. It is punk by way of Malcolm McLaren’s son burning $7 million worth of punk memorabilia in protest of the Queen’s participation in punk’s ruby anniversary. The absence of the intense sincerity that often surrounds the genre makes The Public Image is Rotten almost feel pure.

A solid half of Fiiller’s movie is, instead, dedicated to the band’s post-Flowers of Romance career, a time that saw the departure of Levene and release of the band’s two biggest hits: “This Is Not a Love Song” and “Rise,” the latter of which remains PiL’s calling card in the States. An overstuffed pile of sound barely kept together by Steve Vai on guitar, “Rise” recalls not so much the “folk” music that Lydon repeatedly attempts to identify with than six Sex Pistols songs overlaid on top each other, a sarcastic shrug at ‘80s musical maximalism ruthlessly gorged into a pop hit. The Pop Group’s Bruce Smith, who drummed briefly for PiL, charitably describes Lydon as “not well-suited for that kind of approach.”

Lydon’s attachment to the project, which he ended in 1992 and resurrected in 2009, feels entirely personal, an exercise in expression devoid of any ostensible moral compass nominally attached to the political platforms of their fellow travelers like The Clash or Gang of Four. Fiiller, strangely, covers both Lydon’s turn in the third season of the reality series I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! and that notorious butter advertisement instead of the single solo album Lydon made in the time between. On it, he played almost every instrument but refused to tour, in silent protest of his label’s lack of support. The butter money would be used to fund his own label, finally wrestling away from the rock and roll complex he was never incredibly keen on anyway.

Aesthetic politics are remarkably harder to maintain than the regular kind: Green Day still makes albums about the proverbial “revolution,” and Lydon’s more politically inclined peers or successors, like Andy Gill’s Gang of Four and Sleater-Kinney, reunite every so often to mint out records about the cruelty of consumption in a capitalist world. PiL’s culture-jamming gestures, from issuing albums in metal tins to refusing to engage in much of the artifice of rock and roll, were a meaningful rejection of the nefariousness of the music industrial complex — something that, in absence of a concrete political platform cannot help being vaguely signified as merely “commercialism.”

The Sex Pistols remain, after all, one of the only bands to have rejected induction into the entirely absurd institution that is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Ozzy Osborne preemptively rejected induction before joining Black Sabbath at their ceremony in 2009; Axl Rose refused, more recently, because it would involve sharing the stage with Slash and Duff McKagan). The symbolic power of Lydon’s wariness remains similarly evident in punk culture: from Ian MacKaye’s straight edge to every punk band that breaks up instead of signing that evil label contract. The impossibility of The Public Image is Rotten to penetrate this element of Lydon’s image is symbolic of the power it still has. I mean, come on, Moby?

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