The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

‘The Public Image is Rotten’ brings out your inner punk

Written by: Bianca Garner, CC2K Staff Writer

I grew up with the Sex Pistols’ music and PiL (Public Image Limited), not because I was a teenager in the ’70s and ’80s, but because my stepfather is a huge fan. He grew up listening to punk music and rebelling against authority, something he tried to pass onto me and my siblings (although I am quite a square).

As a result, the music of John Lydon grew on me. The song “Public Image” with it’s lyrics like “You never listen to a word I said” and “I will not be treated as property” speak volumes and have had a profound effect on my sense of personality and independence. The songs of PiL sound like angry, snarls full of rage, but in actual fact they are messages about embracing your identity and telling people not to judge an individual on their appearance. We can take a lot a way from PiL and their music. Punk is a movement about celebrating the individual and rebelling against the norm.

The Public Image Is Rotten is from Tabbert Fiiller and details the growth and ever-changing line up of Public Image Ltd., the band John Lydon put together just after the breakup of the Sex Pistols. This is Lydon’s passion project and he has kept  the band going, in one form or another, for close to 40 years. The documentary is built around an extensive interview with Lydon, who talks to the camera, looking straight at us as he sits around his house – sometimes in the lounge, sometimes in the kitchen – and almost always drinking beer and chain-smoking. Lydon is open and honest about the break up of the Sex Pistols and the dislike he had towards Malcom McLaren. Lydon would have kept the name Johnny Rotten, but he was unable to do so because of the legal issues with McLaren.

We see a personal and private side to Lydon. We witness a tender man still deeply in love with his wife, the German publishing heiress Nora Forster (they’ve been a couple since the ’70s). His eyes lights up whenever he discusses her and her support.  We discover that, as a child, John lost his memory at the age of seven after a bout of meningitis that left him in a coma for three months. When he came around, he discovered he couldn’t remember his own parents. The fear he experienced is unimaginable and is such a unique and intimate insight into Lydon’s life and makes for compelling viewing.

We realize there were spats and clashes within the band and these quarrels were more notorious than the actual music. The drama consists of stories of Keith Levene’s substance abuse, and of how Wobble stole the group’s backing tracks to use on his own solo album. Despite all this, PiL’s music reaches people and there are testimonials from musicians like Flea, Moby, and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. Moore was at the infamous Ritz show in New York — captured here with actual footage — in which the members of PiL performed but refused to emerge from behind a movie screen, provoking a riot from the audience that resulted in the concert being shut down. The band broke up in the ’90s but are now back, still performing to sell out gigs, proving you can’t keep a good punk down for long.

There’s a lot of ground to cover, and sometimes the film rushes over certain events which is frustrating because there are areas I wish they’d focused more on. I admire Fiiller’s ambition to tackle this subject matter, and the documentary a truly fascinating insight into PiL and the life of John Lydon. This is a must-see for pun music fans, but if punk isn’t your thing you’ll still find this interesting because it’s a story about devoting your life to a passion. Lydon is a colorful and engaging character who is larger than life. You can’t quite capture who he is as a person, but this does a good job at attempting to deconstruct the myth, the legend that is Johnny Rotten.

Rating: 4.5 Stars out of 5