While the music of the Sex Pistols is well known, and the band itself is celebrated as one of the most influential punk bands of all time, Pistols’ frontman Johnny Rotten’s equally influential but less documented second band Public Image Limited (PiL) is finally getting overdue recognition in The Public Image Is Rotten, which premiered last month at the Tribeca Film Festival.
With a run-time of over two hours, Rotten is interviewed extensively about his life, from his childhood where he discusses and is still haunted by having meningitis as a boy, the formation and breakup of the Sex Pistols (which, if you’re expecting a Pistols documentary, garners approximately ten minutes), to a full blown discussion of the rocky history of PiL. And it’s all really quite fascinating.
The Public Image Is Rotten makes great use of archival footage that includes rarely seen live performances and interviews, plus interviews with artists influenced by PiL (Moby, Flea, Thurston Moore) and interviews with former PiL members (including Ginger Baker). Those influenced talk about their early PiL experiences, noting that they had never heard anything more refreshing and were definitely the ones that shaped the “New Wave” of music coming from England. Former band members discuss the bands ups and many downs, it’s complex, unsteady history of revolving musicians but through it all, each incarnation of PiL with Rotten as its leader, still managed to release critically acclaimed albums.
For a band this shaky, The Public Image Is Rotten celebrates the fact Rotten and PiL are survivors and still revered. Rotten comes off as unapologetic about the tribulations that have come with PiL but also quite happy about PiL’s place in music. He never comes off as annoyed why PiL, which he seems to consider more his baby, hasn’t received the same level of acclaim the Pistols achieved. He’s fine with PiL just getting its due. For a totally different outlook on a true rock pioneer, The Public Image Is Rotten is the ultimate documentary to watch.
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