Sunday, November 23, 2008

Aging Semi-Gracefully

Julien Temple can't make a boring film about the Sex Pistols because he knows them too well and has known them too long. He made The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, the excellent documentary The Filth and the Fury, and now the live DVD, There'll Always Be an England (Freemantle/Rhino). The show's good, and Temple regularly chooses two valuable camera shots--one on the audience that emphasizes how the show is far more of a communal event than a concert, and one from the back of the stage that makes the band look small, de-emphasizing anything mythic about the Pistols.

The show itself does some of that, too. Steve Jones is stocky with a mug's mug, and if Paul Cook was sitting behind a desk instead of a drum kit, you'd negotiate a home loan with him. Musically, they're better than ever so the versions are solid, but even John Lydon's performance has an element of self-satisfaction that plagues most older bands still playing. No matter how punky they were and still are, at some point there's at least a moment that says, "How cool is that we can still do this?" The pleasure Lydon takes in the audience's roaring affection says that over and over.

More interesting is the Sex Pistols' tour of London that makes up the DVD's bonus materials. In it, you get a much more dynamic, complex experience as you watch the meatier, financially successful Pistols walking through their old haunts with varying degrees of self-consciousness. Naturally, they find that much of the world they knew in 1975 isn't there anymore, so they do a lot of pointing at shop fronts that aren't what they once were talking about the adventures they had there. Watching them, you can't help but be aware of how much has changed for them, which makes their more performed moments all the more curious. They often seem genuine when they engage their past, slightly imprecise and chuffed with themselves for all the good times they got away with, but when Steve Jones nips upstairs in Soho seemingly for sex with a prostitute, it seems designed to remind everyone he's still a rogue. When he starts jawing with a barker selling half-priced theater tickets, it seems similarly calculated to underscore his Sex Pistol-ness because he can never escape the quasi-celebrity with a unique pedigree that he has become. Similarly, Lydon's rage at Arsenal's stadium in Finsbury Park comes camera ready; far more convincing and revealing is his reflexive, snide comments about Malcolm McLaren made while driving past the store that once housed Let it Rock! and Sex. Each impulse would be less engaging without the other.

The whole tour of London literalizes the passage of time - how it affected them, how it affected London, and how it affected their legend. A room on Denmark Street that was once Jones and Cook's apartment is now a design house, and the caricatures of band members, McLaren and Nancy Spungen that Lydon drew on the wall have been carefully preserved and are part of the office decor.

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