A lot of you may know by now that the Sex Pistols were, effectively, the One Direction of their day: a boy band put together by Malcom McLaren and his girlfriend Vivienne Westwood from youths they met at their King’s Road shop for the express purpose of showcasing Westwood’s fashion designs; just as Adam and the Ants were after them. The story has been told before, but never better than in CHAOS!, Phil Strongman’s last documentary on the Sex Pistols.
Phil takes the story a step further in his wide-reaching new documentary Anarchist: The Malcolm McLaren Generation, which has a launch party at the Vibe Bar on Brick Lane on Thursday. There will be clips and stills, fund-raising for flak jackets for Kiev students, and Phil’s celebrated DJ brother Jay Strongman manning the decks. It’s free. Go! Details here.
The film has, bizarrely, yet to attract distribution. I know Phil from way back when, and so saw it at an informal screening in an East London warehouse loft a few weeks back, and it’s absolutely riveting. I realised when the lights came back up that a) I had filled eight pages of my notebook, writing down only the interesting stuff; and b) the screening had gone on for nearly three hours, but I’d never been bored.
Phil makes great use of a candid interview he conducted with Malcolm in Paris, not long before he died. There’s all the good Sex Pistols stuff in there, but also some extraordinary, never-before-heard stuff about Malcolm’s childhood and personal life, including interviews with close friends and Malcolm’s own son.
Born to a very young mother, Malcolm was brought up by his grandmother Rose – Alan Yentob describes her in the documentary, in Citizen Kane terms, as Malcolm’s ‘Rosebud’. She still had a foot in the Victorian era, and home-schooled her favourite grandson (as Malcolm’s brother describes him with evidently lingering bitterness) for greatness, drumming Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde into him. His art-school teacher was another huge influence, teaching him that “it’s better to be a glorious failure than any kind of benign success”.
But as the title of the film suggests, Anarchist: The Malcolm McLaren Generation also sets Malcolm within the arty-political framework of the time. He narrowly missed spending May 1968 in Paris with his friend during the student revolts, and was heavily influenced by the Situationist movement. As one friend recalls, “It was what you did at the weekend. You went to a party, but you went to a demo beforehand.” The creation of the Sex Pistols and the attendant birth of punk is contextualised in the documentary as a kind of giant anti-Capitalist art-school prank (their first gigs, indeed, were in art schools).
I could fill a thousand words with all the good stuff from the film, from what Vivienne got up to with her school class to Malcolm’s subsequent career as Bow Wow Wow Svengali and hip-hop pioneer, but I don’t want to spoil the surprises; instead, let’s hope someone picks it up for distribution so you can watch it for yourselves. If it has a fault, it’s that it’s perhaps too wide-ranging and therefore hard to categorise, almost three films in one: it’s a history of Anarchism in Europe; a personal biography of Malcolm; and a compelling exposé of the real birth of the Sex Pistols. (Sample: Malcolm originally wanted Sid Vicious rather than Johnny Rotten as lead singer, but, he says, “People didn’t have phones in those days. They didn’t have addresses. They didn’t even homes. Sid didn’t show up when I was anxiously looking, so John got the job… (fronting) a band who couldn’t play as a singer who couldn’t sing.”)
But then since when was being too packed full of good stuff a major flaw?