John Lydon is best known by the adopted name of Johnny Rotten from his days in the influential and controversial punk band, the Sex Pistols. The band left a lasting mark on pop culture and reshaped the punk movement in England and America in their three short years of existence before they imploded under the weight of drug use, in-fighting, and non-stop media scrutiny. Out of the ashes of the Sex Pistols, Lydon dropped the moniker of Rotten and formed a new band, Public Image Limited (or PiL). Nearly two decades after the definitive documentary on the Sex Pistols, The Filth and the Fury, Lydon’s musical career is once again subject to an extensive documentary with The Public Image is Rotten, following Lydon’s lengthy post-Pistols career with numerous interviews with Lydon as well as band members past and present. It’s a fascinating look at a musical artist whose legacy seems to have been defined by his youthful dalliance in a manufactured outrage machine and not the decades of experimental post-punk musical deconstruction that better reflects the man as a whole.
Director Tabbert Fiiller interviews John Lydon, who is always burning a Marlboro Red and sipping on a Corona. At first, the punk icon recalls his youth, his relationship with his mother, and contracting meningitis which robbed him of his memory and ability to speak. The illness is crucial in understanding Lydon’s need to leave nothing unsaid and a desire to control everything he possibly can. This also factors in with his indifference towards the Sex Pistols and the band’s legacy. In Lydon’s eyes, the Pistols were a creation of Malcom McLaren, just as manufactured as any boy band and not truly his own creation. Even musically, the Pistols are rather derivative of a lot of previous proto-punk bands such as the New York Dolls, whom guitarist Steve Jones liberally ripped off on the band’s lone record (despite the fact there’s a song slandering the trashy glam band). Public Image Limited is Lydon’s brainchild and it’s obvious that it’s the work that he’s most proud of.
After the Pistols imploded at their final show in San Fransisco, Lydon was legally prohibited from using the name Johnny Rotten due to a legal dispute with McLaren. Lydon formed Public Image Limited with guitarist Keith Levene, who was briefly in The Clash, and bassist Jah Wobble (John Wardle), a childhood friend, and were joined by drummer Jim Walker. PiL released their first single “Public Image” which didn’t sound too far off from the raucous sounds of the Sex Pistols with Lydon’s voice sneering his angsty lyrics. The rest of their debut album, however, greatly differed from the rote punk sound and wasn’t considered much of a commercial success. Walker wasn’t long for the band and departed and was replaced with Martin Adkins. The lineup of Lydon, Levene, Wobble, and Adkins would record PiL’s finest album, Second Edition (or Metal Box depending on whether you got the album in the US or the UK). Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ Flea recount the influence of PiL’s second album, and further discuss why the record still resonates today with its experimental style and atonal melodies, anchored by Atkins’ drums and Wobbles’ distinct bass as Levene’s chaotic guitar blares in a high pitch that echoes the voice of their lead singer.
Credit to director Fiiller for not allowing The Public Image is Rotten to be dominated by the commentary of the band’s frontman and leader. Each member of the band is given an opportunity to present their side of the story. As the years progressed, members of the band came and went. The way the film cuts between the varying perspectives of the various band members gives the film a certain sense of intimacy as it takes you behind the curtain and into the interpersonal relationships that become strained between the notes.
Friendships crumbled and feuds emerged, and a few distinct instances gave Lydon the feeling that his former bandmates betrayed him. One such instance is the solo album by Jah Wobble entitled Betrayal. Lydon claims that the bassist used PiL records as his backing tracks. Fiiller plays the two tracks in succession and it’s pretty obvious that Wobble did use PiL records despite claiming to have not. In a similar fashion, years later, Keith Levene released a bootleg copy of the forthcoming album This is What You Want…This is What You Get under the name Commercial Zone. Sometimes Fiiller’s film sides with Lydon in these feuds and other times the director embraces ambiguity, allowing the viewer to decide who’s at fault in the friction. The interviews of everybody is corroborated with archival footage, some of which is from grainy, practically destroyed video tape. But everything in The Public Image is Rotten paints a picture of a band in constant turmoil and the figurehead who keeps the machine moving despite the litany of kinks.
It’s rare that a musician can get one excellent documentary spanning their musical career, but for John Lydon he’s now had one documentary for each of his two legendary bands. The Sex Pistols are the band that most people know thanks to the infamy they built during their short career. But it’s Public Image Limited that Lydon is most loved for by music nerds, and The Public Image is Rotten is the definitive portrait of the band’s ups and downs over its decades of existence. It’s sometimes ugly. It’s sometimes antagonistic. It’s sometimes rotten. But, for better or worse, it’s pure John Lydon.
The Public Image is Rotten
Best known as Johnny Rotten from the Sex Pistols, John Lydon has been fronting his second band Public Image Limited for decades and PiL gets their own documentary with The Public Image is Rotten, an intimate and captivating look at post punk innovators and their legendary antagonistic frontman.