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Julien Temple
The Sex Pistols
Writing Credits:
Julien Temple

The film that incriminates its audience.

A rather incoherent post-breakup Sex Pistols "documentary", told from the point of view of Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, whose (arguable) position is that the Sex Pistols in particular and punk rock in general were an elaborate scam perpetrated by him in order to make "a million pounds." Silly and hard to follow at times, but worth seeing for some excellent Pistols concert footage, some wickedly amusing animated sequences, and Sid Vicious' eerily prophetic performance of "My Way."

Rated NR

Fullscreen 1.33:1
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English Stereo
Not Closed-captioned

Runtime: 100 min.
Price: $19.98
Release Date: 5/17/2005

• Audio Commentary with Director Julien Temple
• Interview with Julien Temple


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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The Sex Pistols: The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle (1980)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 6, 2005)

Sometimes films that don’t receive many airings turn into legends. Hardly anyone sees them, so they become regarded as special despite any flaws they may possess. If they remain unseen, how can anyone despite their celebrated status?

The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle falls into that category. A semi-documentary about the Sex Pistols, I can remember hearing about it as a teen, and it sounded awfully cool. Unfortunately, now that I see it as an adult, I can find little to like or enjoy in this disjointed, idiotic effort.

Swindle purports to relate the story of the Sex Pistols in an odd manner. Mostly narrated by manager Malcolm McLaren, it follows the band’s formation and their career through and after their split in 1978. It does so with some real footage from the appropriate era along with weird semi-videos and other sketch elements created specifically for the film.

Singer Johnny Rotten refused to participate in the project, so he’s usually represented either by performers in masks or animation. The other three Pistols - guitarist Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook, and bassist Sid Vicious - pop up in footage made for the movie. Jones gets the most attention, as he plays a film noir-style detective who tries to track down McLaren. He also adds some narration of his own.

Essentially a stylized and fictionalized account of the Pistols’ career, Swindle is a complete mess. Terribly self-indulgent and fairly pointless, it hasn’t aged well. Perhaps it felt more “punk” 25 years ago, but now it looks disjointed and asinine.

Suffice it to say you’ll get very little feel for the Pistols’ career or their music. We don’t hear a lot of classic Pistols tunes. They pop up sporadically, but instead we mostly encounter scraps from the studio floor and Vicious solo tunes. Some other oddities appear like disco renditions of Pistols numbers and an actor playing Nazi Martin Boormann crooning “Belsen Was a Gas” in a startlingly tasteless sequence.

McLaren backed the film, so mostly Swindle feels like an attempt to promote himself as the genius behind the band. His negative attitude toward Rotten comes through clearly. Early in the film, we see a segment that endorses the concept that anyone could sing for the group; a montage shows a slew of performers as they take Rotten’s place, often underneath a mask that looks like him. McLaren tosses out other digs at Rotten later in the flick, and we hear virtually nothing of original bassist - and primary songwriter - Glen Matlock. McLaren comes across as insufferable and full of himself, and his attempts to make himself out to be the band’s One True Genius become nauseating.

Occasionally we get some decent archival footage of the band such as clips from their final concert in San Francisco. (“Final” for the band in its heyday, that is; they’d reform for a period in the mid-Nineties.) Unfortunately, we see little of this gold and far too much of the silly skits and McLaren’s inanity.

I can’t say that The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle comes without any entertainment value, but there’s too little of that to maintain interest over a 100-minute film. Instead, it mainly feels like a punk Magical Mystery Tour: a sloppy, self-indulgent piece of nonsense.

The DVD Grades: Picture D+/ Audio D-/ Bonus C+

The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Swindle remained fairly watchable but never better than that.

Some of that was inevitable due to the nature of the project. Not only did it incorporate a fair amount of archival footage, but also it was shot for a low budget. Sharpness lacked great definition. The shots rarely looked tremendously off, but they usually came across as fuzzy and soft. No real problems with jagged edges or shimmering occurred, but some noticeable edge enhancement occasionally appeared.

Source flaws popped up inconsistently, but they created more than a few distractions. Various examples of specks, marks, hairs, nicks and debris occurred. These didn’t overwhelm, but they became a nuisance.

Colors consistently appeared flat and lifeless. The tones were bland throughout the film, as even Carnival sequences in Brazil lacked vivacity. Blacks were acceptably deep, but shadows looked dense and heavy. Objectively, I suppose Swindle probably looked about as good as one could expect for this sort of flick, but it remained a severely problematic image.

The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle presented an erratic and ultimately unsatisfying Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. To refer to this sucker as a multi-channel mix is a joke. For all intents and purposes, it was monaural. The audio broadened to the side and rear speakers solely in the form of vague echo. This served no useful purpose and just made the audio less focused and more unnatural.

It didn’t help that the track came with a serious case of excessive reverb that didn’t accompany the stereo mix also found on the DVD. This impaired the quality of the audio. Some speech - usually McLaren’s narration became almost unintelligible due to the metallic tones. Edginess also interfered, and I found it tough to discern what people said at times. Music lacked much dimensionality, as the songs were feeble and tinny much of the time. The songs could be rather shrill.

Effects showed similar issues but came marred by too much bass. Pretty much anything that appeared overwhelmed the mix. The low-end for the music was ill-defined and boomy, and the effects just displayed loud thumped indistinctly. This was a poor, almost unlistenable track.

Only a couple of extras pop up on Swindle. The main attraction comes from an audio commentary with director Julien Temple and rock writer Chris Salewicz; the latter mainly acts as an interviewer. Like the movie itself, this commentary occasionally springs to life, but usually it meanders and disappoints.

During the film’s first half, Temple provides a reasonable amount of information about the Pistols and the shooting of the movie. He gives us some background about the various situations and circumstances. This rarely becomes memorable, but it adds depth to the piece.

Unfortunately, many long pauses mar the commentary’s second half. The situation doesn’t change until we get to the point when the Pistols tour the US. Temple comes back to action then and offers quite a lot of good notes about various band politics and other concerns. This continues for much of the remaining discussion, as Temple tells us many insightful remarks that relate to the band after their demise in San Francisco. There’s good material here if you’re willing to suffer through the weak spots.

In addition, we get an interview with Temple. Conducted by Salewicz, this chat lasts 18 minutes and 58 seconds. Temple discusses the roots of punk rock and the Pistols’ place, getting involved with the Pistols and shooting them, planning and executing the film’s various elements, band politics and problems, and the goals of the film as well as additional issues.

Compared to the rambling commentary, this chat is quite tight and informative. Temple sticks mainly with the meat of the matters, and it’s good to find out what Temple wanted to do with the flick; I still think it’s a train wreck, but at least I can appreciate its take on the subject better. The interview largely fails to repeat notes from the commentary.

Really, the only complaint I have stems from the recording of the two participants. Salewicz sits much closer to the microphone, so when he speaks, it blows the volume levels sky high and becomes very loud and distorted. This is a sloppy and annoying touch.

If forced to pick a Sex Pistols song title to describe The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, “Pretty Vacant” best applies. This is a pretty vacant project, as it lacks any depth and also fails to present much entertainment. The DVD offers fairly poor picture and audio along with some decent extras. Leave this stinker for Sex Pistols obsessives, as I can’t imagine anyone else will get anything from it.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.6428 Stars Number of Votes: 14
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