The Public Image is Rotten

Studio: Abramorama & Versimilitude
Directed by Tabbert Fiiller

Sep 11, 2018 Web Exclusive
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Johnny Rotten will never die. It helps that he’s not, in fact, real. He’s an image, acerbic and defiant, forever snarling at whatever authority looms over him. However, John Lydon, the blood-and-guts man behind the legendary persona, is quite real and the focus of Tabbert Fiiler’s documentary, The Public Image is Rotten. The film picks up after the Sex Pistols’ dissolution and what follows is an engaging yet frustratingly narrow view of Lydon and his band, Public Image, Ltd.

Early in the film, Lydon recounts how he lost his memory--even memories of his parents--when he was a child. While his memory did come back, the experience utterly transformed young Lydon and from then on valued honesty in all matters, no matter how ugly or awkward. The film marches chronologically from the band’s rise from the Pistols’ ashes and through their various lineups, drug abuse and fights over money and musical control. Lydon’s unflinching way of looking at the world enlivens these well-trod band tropes. Though he comes across as uncompromising, one doesn’t get the sense that he’s sugar coating anything. Lydon tells the tale warts and all.

Despite his engagement and honesty, the film can only go so far with Lydon. Though musicians like Flea and Thurston Moore chime in with personal anecdotes, they don’t provide much depth. Perhaps interviewing Lydon’s musical contemporaries and not those who grew up in the shadow of the Pistols and PiL could have yielded richer results. The Public Image is Rotten gives John Lydon’s full view of PiL, but it’s a shame the scope wasn’t stretched out a bit further.

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