Film Review: The Public Image is Rotten

An otherwise well-crafted and beautifully evocative documentary of the post-punk U.K. band Public Image Ltd. is undermined by being an official, authorized work, a vanity project painting the former Johnny Rotten as Gentleman John Lydon.
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It's disingenuous that the press notes for The Public Image Is Rotten—a documentary about the British band Public Image Ltd., fronted by John Lydon, formerly Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols—never state that one of the executive producers is John Rambo Stevens, Lydon's childhood friend and now his manager. While Stevens' name appears in the onscreen credits, neither Stevens nor his similarly unmentioned fellow executive producers Cameron Brodie and Nick Shumaker should be commended for trying to hide the fact that this is an authorized biography and not a journalistically independent documentary.

For all its considerable virtues—including a wide array of interview subjects including legendary drummer Ginger Baker, who did some session work on PIL's 1985 album Album—this means we never can feel sure that the band's many controversies are not being presented to cast Lydon in the best light. Original guitarist Keith Levene, for example, is accused of stealing PIL master recordings that he released in the U.S. as the PIL album Commercial Zone, while Lydon and the rest of the band re-recorded much of the same material and released it in the U.K. as This Is What You Want, This is What You Get. Yet while Lydon recalls this as "somebody being greedy and selfish with PIL stuff," Levene, who is interviewed elsewhere in the documentary, never gets his own say about this—and the logistics of music rights and album releasing guarantee that the story and the theft accusation are much, much less black-and-white than as given here.

Indeed, the film paints one-time provocateur Lydon as a now warm and cuddly English gent who found great pleasure in helping to raise his step-grandchildren. And while it mentions his camera-shy longtime wife Nora Forster, it somehow doesn't mention—amid all his talk of money issues with the band and his taking what he calls a not-particularly-lucrative TV-commercial gig to raise funds for a PIL revival in 2009—that his wife is a wealthy publishing heiress and that they live in tony Malibu, California. We don't even learn that this symbol of anarchy in the U.K. has been a U.S. citizen since around 2013.

A couple of decades-old criticisms do turn up. Original bassist Jah Wobble and original drummer Jim Walker, for instance, talk about their disappointment that money from their time in PIL wasn't split equally, with Wobble adding bitterly that he thought he could trust his old mate John. "Famous last words in the music business," he says. But in terms of sheer craft, Tabbert Fiiller in his feature directing debut provides a clear narrative with exceptionally good use of archival material to trace PIL's convoluted path in an informative and lively way, with copious concert footage.

Lydon, after leaving the Sex Pistols in early 1978 over what he called manipulation and sensationalism by manager Malcolm McLaren, formed PIL with Wobble, Walker and former Clash guitarist Levene, issuing their first album and playing their first show in December of that year. A disenchanted Walker soon left, initiating a revolving door of drummers that early on included the relatively longstanding Martin Atkins, interviewed extensively here, and Sam Ulano (1920-2014), a 60-year-old jazz drummer and teacher recruited at the last minute for PIL's infamous May 15, 1981, show at New York City's Ritz rock club that ended in a riot. And Ulano himself is a riot here, with his still-thick Bronx accent hilariously recalling, "I walked in, got on the stage, and we were behind this big movie screen. I said, ‘What do you guys want me to do?’ And Johnny Rotten says to me, 'Give me a lotta tom-toms.’” Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, who attended that show, recalls chairs and bottles being thrown and police evacuating the place. "That was, like, one of the greatest gigs I ever saw!" he says, laughing.

The documentary, featuring natural raconteur Lydon relaxed and engaging at various spots in his home, covers his early life, including emotional reminiscences of meningitis and affiliated amnesia, as well as such milestones as his arrest and weeklong jail stay in Ireland after a pub brawl; Levene exiting the band after his drug use threatened a lucrative early tour in Japan (and bringing his attorney to the band meeting to discuss it, prompting Atkins to scoff today, "What's this, the fuckin' Eagles?"); the contentious Tom Snyder interview on "Tomorrow" in 1980 and their rapprochement on "The Late Late Show" in 1997; Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea successfully auditioning to join PIL, only to turn down the job the next day; PIL dissolving in 1993; and Lydon getting the band back together in 2009, with Lu Edmonds (The Damned), drummer Bruce Smith and bassist Scott Firth. The film, completed in 2017, goes up to PIL's 2015 tour. Filmmaker John Waters and musician-producer Ian MacKaye appear separately in end-credit cameos.

As fascinating and well-crafted as it is, The Public Image Is Rotten is ultimately a vanity project, authorized by Lydon and his manager and meant less as an unvarnished journalistic documentary but as a burnishing of, well, his public image. If the John Lydon of 1980 had seen this vetted self in some vision of the future, you just know he would have said, "Bollocks!"