PiL Documentary Reveals How John Lydon Changed His Post-Punk Image

The revealing PiL documentary, ‘The Public Image Is Rotten’, offers a fascinating look at one of rock’s most uncompromising bands.

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Julien Temple’s The Filth And The Fury previously explained why seminal punks Sex Pistols still matter, but the in-depth PiL documentary The Public Image Is Rotten examines how John Lydon’s second band, Public Image Ltd, also influenced successive generations of future-shaping rock’n’roll acts.

Directed by Tabbert Fiiller (Cesar Chavez, The Activist) and produced by Abramorama, The Public Image Is Rotten delves deep into the iconic post-punk outfit’s history as they celebrate their 40th anniversary. The PiL documentary first premiered in London, on 3 June, to coincide with the release of a multi-disc 5CD+2DVD box set of the same name, which includes a wealth of rare and previously unreleased material.

Presented chronologically, The Public Image Is Rotten picks up Lydon’s story from Sex Pistols’ split, in early 1978, and traces the fascinating – if irregular – arc of PiL’s career, from their inception in the spring of ’78 through to the present day.

The director has left precious few stones unturned. He’s been granted access to the band’s archive, so long-term fans will be thrilled to encounter reams of previously unseen footage, ranging from PiL’s very first gig in Brussels (December ’78), through to rarely-seen Top Of The Pops and Old Grey Whistle Test performances.

Additionally, the PiL documentary presents new (and extremely candid) interviews with band members both past and present. Securing commentary from Lydon’s original PiL bandmates Keith Levene, Jah Wobble and drummer Jim Walker is an especially notable coup, but Fiiller also captures valuable insight from PiL insiders/acolytes including music journalist Vivian Goldman and original Roxy Club DJ/filmmaker Don Letts. Alt.rock luminaries touched by the hand of PiL, such as Moby, Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore have their say too, with Moore astutely noting that the band’s legendary debut single, ‘Public Image’, was the song “that really changed the landscape after punk”.

To the director’s immense credit, The Public Image Is Rotten also lingers long on the making of all PiL’s landmark albums. We discover how Lydon and company somehow channelled chaotic, nocturnal sessions at Richard Branson’s rural Manor Studio into the otherworldly Metal Box; get the inside track on 1981’s left-field masterpiece Flowers Of Romance from producer Nick Launay and long-term drummer Martin Atkins; and marvel as John Lydon gleefully recalls recording Album with an all-star cast including Bill Laswell, Steve Vai and legendary Cream drummer Ginger Baker.

Inevitably, Lydon is the film’s dominant presence, as large chunks of The Public Image Is Rotten derive from new interviews shot in the singer’s kitchen and living room in LA. These segments make for mesmerising viewing, with Lydon visibly moved while recalling his potentially life-threatening bout of meningitis during his childhood, yet quickly regaining his natural defiance when discussing Sex Pistols’ messy implosion and even the implausible Country Life butter ads which helped bankroll PiL’s second life after the band’s lengthy hiatus during the 90s and early 00s.

A sizeable cut above the average rock doc, The Public Image Is Rotten stakes its claim as both a highly absorbing tribute to one of rock’s most uncompromising bands and a finely-drawn portrait of a singular frontman who, in his own words, remains “one of the very few people in pop history who will not go away”.

The Public Image Is Rotten (Songs From The Heart) box set can be bought here.


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