Near the beginning of The Public Image is Rotten, a young John Lydon is asked how long he’ll live. “I’m one of the very few people in pop history who will not go away.” Forty years later, he’s still capturing the attention of fans and the media, whether he’s onstage making music or simply walking through an airport. His band, Public Image Ltd., has been together in one form or another for forty years, too. The Public Image is Rotten, a documentary about the band, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last year and is playing in limited engagement at select theaters around the U.S. this fall.
Named after a novel by Muriel Spark, Public Image, Ltd. was formed after the Sex Pistols ended, but the band wasn’t without a birthing pains. Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren owned the rights to the name Johnny Rotten, and after some legal wrangling, Lydon was free to perform, but without the name that had made him Public Enemy Number One.
The Public Image Is Rotten is a straightforward documentary that highlights four decades of Lydon’s post-punk musical explorations with an assortment of PiL bandmates, as well as other projects. As the years passed, PiL’s sound morphed into something more accessible, but it’s always remained a cacophony of sound for dancing and thinking.
Flea, Moby, Thurston Moore, and Adam Horowitz talk about PiL’s influence on their music. “Metal Box changed my life," Flea says. “It changed the way I looked at music.” Despite his admiration for the band, he turned down an offer to become PiLs bass player in the ‘80s, opting instead to stay with the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
There are a few brief clips of PiL’s infamous show at the Ritz in 1981. The band performed behind a screen. They recruited a guest drummer, a drum salesman who worked at a Manhattan music shop for the gig. The kids in 1981 weren’t ready for this type of performance in 1981, even in New York. The concert ended in utter chaos, with some audience members throwing bottles and tearing up the giant movie screen on the stage.
“One of the greatest gigs I ever saw,” said Thurston Moore, who was in attendance. “Greatest gig I ever did,” says Lydon. What could have been a fiasco, just added to the band’s outsider persona. (Strangely, there is no mention of the band’s chaotic appearance an American Bandstand in 1980, which saw Lydon wander into the studio audience and cajole the kids to come up on stage and dance.)
By the mid-80s, PiL hired an honest, professional business manager (the antithesis of Malcolm) and things calmed down somewhat. Lydon recorded with Afrika Bambaataa on the electro-funk track "World Destruction," and worked with succession of gifted musicians in PiL. Steve Vai, Ginger Baker, and Bernie Worrell played uncredited the on the 1985 release Album. There were times he couldn’t escape his punk past, though. During one tour, he had to walk off stage for several minutes after some kids kept spitting at him.
The documentary only takes a few short detours from PiL, with a few mentions of the Pistols in the beginning and the meningitis that put him in a coma and wiped his memory as a child. He gets emotional as he talks about not recognizing his parents after waking up from the coma. He also talks about raising his stepdaughter Ari Up's twin sons with his wife Nora.
Director Tabbert Filler gives us a break from all the animation sequences so popular in documentaries these days and sticks to interviews and archival clips. We see clips from the infamous Country Life butter commercial (which is actually pretty funny) and music videos and interviews from MTV and Sex Pistols days.
Most of The Public Image Is Rotten keys in on the band’s history, musical genesis, and personality conflicts like most rock docs. What makes the film engaging is the no-BS honesty of all its interviewees. When the older, wiser Lydon gives his insight into past events (and his take on certain aspects of life in general), he may not be as snarky as he was when he was younger, but he’s no less opinionated or eloquent.