Tribeca 2017 Review: THE PUBLIC IMAGE IS ROTTEN, A Legendary Musician's Musical and Personal Reinvention

Tabbert Fiiller's documentary on John Lydon's band Public Image Ltd. is the definitive portrait of this inventive, influential post-punk outfit.

Featured Critic; New York City, New York
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Tribeca 2017 Review: THE PUBLIC IMAGE IS ROTTEN, A Legendary Musician's Musical and Personal Reinvention

“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten’s acerbic question to the audience at the end of the Sex Pistols’ disastrous 1978 U.S. tour may have marked the end of that group, but for Lydon himself, this was only the beginning of his musical journey. What came after Lydon and the Sex Pistols’ reinvention of rock music is the fascinating subject of Tabbert Fiiller’s lively documentary The Public Image is Rotten, a film with one of rock’s most enduringly incisive, brutally honest, and sharply funny characters at its center.

This film tells the story of the genesis and unending evolution of Lydon’s post-punk, post-Sex Pistols band Public Image Ltd. (or PiL for short), which, in its fusion of punk, dance, reggae, and world-music rhythms, proved to be nearly as groundbreaking and influential as Lydon’s other band. PiL was the vehicle by which Lydon would break himself free from the control of Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren, find a path out of the destruction and chaos that was happening around him, and assert his own, unique musical identity.

Lydon’s own music reinvention began when, right after the Sex Pistols broke up, he traveled to Jamaica with Richard Branson, who was scouting reggae musicians for Virgin Records. After absorbing the sounds he heard there, he returned to England to form a band, the core of which included bassist Jah Wobble and ex-Clash guitarist Keith Levene, which would eventually become PiL (named after a Muriel Spark novel). Shortly thereafter, the group released its first single “Public Image,” which was Lydon’s truly new-sounding, startlingly bold declaration of musical and artistic independence. This iconoclastic refusal to accept limiting labels, musical or otherwise, would not only inform PiL’s subsequent, ever-mutating musical styles, but even challenge the definition of a “band,” which in the case of PiL became a revolving door of constantly changing line-ups, with Lydon as the only constant.

The core of The Public Image is Rotten is an extended contemporary interview with Lydon at his current home in Los Angeles, with his trademark profane, ascerbic wit, tempered only slightly by his current existence as a man in his 60’s looking back on his life, his music, and the people he loved and lost. Lydon opens up on screen as he’s never before done in public, relating such stories as his bout with meningitis as a young boy, which put him in a three-month coma and caused him to temporarily lose his memory. According to Lydon, this deeply informed his life-long concern with his own identity, making it much more understandable as to why Lydon reacted so badly to McLaren’s attempts to control Lydon’s image as his Sex Pistols “Johnny Rotten” persona, and why he was so determined that no one but him would control his public guises and his musical directions.

Fiiller and his crew make skillful use of archival material, such as that of PiL’s infamous 1981 New York show at the Ritz, where the band – augmented with a 60-year-old jazz drummer – performed in silhouette behind a movie screen, which they refused to come out from behind, so that the audience could actually see them. This so angered the audience, who pelted the band with bottles, that the show was shut down and the next night’s show cancelled. The captured footage of Lydon and PiL’s approach to performance, compared to the mostly sanitized, corporate, anodyne affairs much live music has become, retains its bristling, startling quality some thirty years later. This and other scenes help this documentary remind us that far from a cast-in-amber “rock legend,” Lydon remains an unceasingly restless musical explorer and a boundlessly creative force. 

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John LydonTabbert FiillerThe Public Image is RottenTribeca 2017

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Ard VijnApril 23, 2017 6:48 PM

And now I'm going to listen to The Order Of Death (and maybe watch HARDWARE).

wabaliciousApril 24, 2017 8:44 AM

Sounds like an interesting doc. I personally don't get PiL at all, they've a few songs I like and the rest is just not my cup of tea, but Lydon's always interesting at least. He seems to change how he views certain events pretty regularly though, so i'm wondering what his take will be on those this time round. In past interviews he's been pretty rude and dismissive of Branson's contribution to his career so i'll be interested to see how he talks about him here. I think 90% of what he says is done purely to see how people will react and may not be necessarily what he thinks at all.

Patty CifraApril 26, 2017 10:23 AM

I'm a Public Image Ltd. fan and love their music. Looking forward to seeing this documentary. John Lydon is a strong, colorful personality who's lead an extraordinary life as a musical frontman. I'm hoping due respect was given in the doc to the roles of the original band members, Keith Levene (guitar), Jah Wobble (bass) and Jim Pil Walker (drums), who created the innovative sounds that made Public Image Ltd. such a great band. PIL was originally an improvisational collaboration between these four members. John wrote the lyrics, but the music itself was created by those brilliant musicians, and others he's worked with through the years. Keith Levene in particular was a co-founder of the band and played a major role in early PIL. Sadly, he and Lydon had a falling out. I'm curious to see how he's represented in the doc. The history of PIL is a fascinating one to me.