Thursday, October 18, 2012

Rocktober: 'The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle' (1980)

Produced after the Sex Pistols had essentially broken up (Johnny Rotten had left the band, which would ultimately not continue), The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle is a bit of a swindle itself. It's a self-aggrandizing vehicle for band manager Malcolm McLaren, who stars as himself, giving a sort of "lesson" about how he invented both the Sex Pistols and punk rock itself, and then used both to bilk hundreds of thousands of pounds out of record companies and leave the musicians and the public in the dust. It reduces the band members to pawns in McLaren's scheme, and although Rotten's three bandmates (Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Sid Vicious) do appear in the movie, their presence is secondary to McLaren's pontificating, which frames everything else (including archival footage of Sex Pistols performances and interviews, which were the only way to get Rotten in the movie) as a function of his vision.

Although it's structured as a series of guidelines for duping the public, Swindle doesn't really have anything to say about the music industry or the career of the Sex Pistols. Its Monty Python-esque freewheeling style is more disjointed than surreal, and writer-director Julien Temple (who 20 years later made a more straightforward documentary about the band, The Filth and the Fury) throws together the material as best he can, although he was undoubtedly working under serious constraints. Elements like the animated sequences and the lengthy travelogue footage of Jones and Cook in Brazil feel like filler cooked up to bridge the gaps between performance clips.

Jones does an amusing job playing himself as a "detective" tracking down McLaren for the money he's owed, and McLaren himself is an entertainingly hammy screen presence. But the movie's relentless cynicism is completely unearned, since McLaren's supposed scheme has been invented in hindsight. The Pistols are both more significant and less cunning than this movie makes them out to be, and its existence as a postscript to the band's career (underlined by the news reports of Vicious' death that appear after the credits) highlights what a pathetic cash-grab it really was.

No comments: