Thursday, April 20, 2006

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle (1980)

The Sex Pistols movie that "incriminates its audience" is punk rock's flip-you-the-bird answer to the naive Beatles film milieu, a rash, stylish overturning of elements from A Hard Day's Night and even Yellow Submarine. Starring The Sex Pistols (though not Johnny Rotten, who is seen only in existing footage...), The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle kicks off the 1980s in cynical, angry fashion and consists of a series of loosely connected vignettes (offered as a kind of rock industry Ten Commandments). Some are animated, some are shot on 8mm, others include archival documentary footage and some "skits" were shot specifically for the film with cooperating (and surviving...) Sex Pistols.

In all cases, the helter-skelter presentation hangs together through its "ten lessons" about how to pull off the swindle of the title. The ostensible plot involves a detective played by Steve Jones attempting to track down the shady manager of the band, Malcolm McLaren, who provides raspy voice-over throughout and hides under a creepy black mask.

The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle's anarchic form reflects its sense of chaotic content, and there's no sense of formal movie decorum here. What might be a harmless pie-in-the-face joke in A Hard Day' Night transforms, with the ultra violent Sid Vicious on hand, into a virtual assault with a cake. A harmless animated high-seas adventure Yellow Submarine-style becomes shark-infested waters with record companies (like Virgin..) serving as the man-eaters, over the film's end credits. Some footage shot for the film is so grainy that clarity disintegrates and reality is de-constructed. When a random zoom does catch a relevant action, it's just as likely to be a shot of the drummer picking his nose as it is a shot of a band member accomplishing a particularly skilled riff. (Which, let's face it, doesn't happen...Ever.)

There are ten lessons in the film, a production which reports that The Sex Pistols made more than a million dollars off gullible record companies. Some of these covenants include "How to Manufacture Your Group," which establishes the Sex Pistols as a historical force at the 1780 Gordon Riots while a London mob hangs the group in Effigy...then burns the band.

The second lesson advises prospective rockers to "establish the name," and "prevent competition" by playing at unconventional venues such as strip clubs and prisons. (Hey, it worked for Johnny Cash!) "Forget about music," the narrator suggests "and concentrate" on creating "generation gaps." In other words: appeal to the youthful sense of rebellion and anti-authority hatred.

In fact, one such lesson suggests "Cultivate Hatred; It is your greatest asset." In this regard, The Sex Pistols not only created a cult following, but a coterie of critics tailor-made to hate them in very public forums (thus generating publicity). "Most of these groups would be improved by sudden death," one stodgy commentator states in the film. The band is also referred to as "nauseating," "disgusting" and "a walking abortion." Based on my blog this week, I'm clearly working on this lesson, myself...

The Great Rock'N'Roll Swindle has been attacked as representing McLaren (the group's manager) and his perspective more than the band itself, and many have seen Temple's 2000 documentary The Filth and the Fury as an antidote. Yet, whether intentionally or not, this film perfectly captures the self-obsessed, nihilist world of late 1970s punk rock. A band that can't play well and can't be bothered to learn to play well, goes on a mad spree through the world, noses bloodied (on stage...), but never beaten. They spit on their fans (literally), and in Sid Vicious's iconic, marble-mouthed rendition of Frank Sinatra's "My Way" (also featured in Sid & Nancy [1986]), he actually blows away audience members in a bloody massacre. It's rock as protest; rock as rebellion, and rock, indeed, as swindle. But it speaks as cogently (and stylishly) to its time as the Beatles did to theirs. The only difference is that these times, clearly, are much darker, more pessimistic. The film features Nazi imagery, some graphic nudity, a bit of blood, and anything else the makers can imagine to offend mainstream audiences, but the self-reflexive production (which incorporates criticism of the band right into its genetic make-up) indeed convinces one that the Sex Pistols, at least for a time, had the last laugh: earning devoted fans who rave about their "deep" lyrics and songs, when, in fact, the band's main struggle has been not to play at all, but rather have gigs cancelled.

The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle ends, appropriately on a downer; with a gaggle of headlines about Sid Vicious's death. Maybe the swindle, the joke, was carried just a little too far in this case. "His way," his philosophy of life, didn't seem to bring Vicious much joy or happiness in the end, and I guess the swindle had to end some time. One thing that Gary Oldman was not able to transmit in his otherwise brilliant portrayal of Vicious in Sid & Nancy - but which comes across here in spades - is Vicious's total and utter youth. This guy, folks, was a friggin' kid; a skinny kid. I won't say his death is tragic, given his life-hating proclivities, but certainly his life was.

1 comment:

  1. you surprise me with your anomoly reviews. certainly you love sid vicious and vincent gallo. had i my way, sid could have not murdered his girlfriend and then died and vince could have.

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