The first in a new series looking at important films, music based or otherwise!
Lech Kowalski's 1980 movie 'D.O.A'(sometimes referred to as 'D.O.A: A Right Of Passage') is a fascinating documentary, and massively important document of one the most extraordinary and much misunderstood periods in the history of Popular Music.
Following two threads, the film at once follows the Sex Pistols ill fated tour of the Southern States Of America, while at the same time heads over to Britain to find out exactly WHY Punk evolved in Britain and to focus on the new acts following in the wake of the Pistols. The film is full of extreme juxtapositions as we shall discover, but more importantly it is one of the only movies that exists that captures fully the feral, incendiary power of Punk Rock.
There exists two movies which try to tell the story of the Sex Pistols, both directed by Julien Temple, but both telling radically different views of what went on. 'The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle'(1979) tells manager Malcolm McLaren's view of how he did everything and was practically involved in in every single aspect of the Pistols except for the actual playing and singing. 20 years later in 'The Filth And The Fury', Temple allows the members of the Sex Pistols themselves tell their version of the story, which as you can imagine is completely at odds with the popular notion the public had been fed by McLaren.
'D.O.A' on the other hand, cuts through all the bullshit and simply allows the music to speak for itself, and thus we are treated to some of the most visceral live music captured anywhere anytime.
Watching the Sex Pistols perform before varying moods of crowds dispels many myths that exist around the Pistols. Firstly, the idea that the band were always a shambles live, and especially on this tour, is utter crap. The band are SCORCHING and deliver truly ferocious performances night after night like a well honed unit(remember they had been playing live almost constantly for three years by this point). Secondly, the idea that Sid Vicious could not play a single note is also dismissed as horseshit. Sid is quite clearly playing(and more than competently), as can be verified at a moment when Steve's guitar cuts out and all that can be heard are Sid and Paul's bass and drums. Sid is quite clearly playing in time, and in tune, traducing all the nonsense that McLaren fed to the music press.
In the live footage, the band sound fantastic and Johnny Rotten looks and sounds every bit a star. Full of charisma, he seems completely unswayed by the indifferent audiences, even taking a full glass of something suspicious in the face without flinching.
The American audiences do themselves no favours whatsoever. Either sounding like spaced-out loony tunes or IQ-free Rednecks, they spout the most outrageous twaddle to the camera. The Rednecks on one hand believe that the band piss, crap and vomit on the audience and offer nothing but physical violence as response. Those who 'dig' the band seem every bit as mad, blethering all kinds of mystical and hippyish arsewords and acting like a bunch of precocious kids who've just found Mummy's dressing up box. The unreality of the American audience leads to the greatest juxtaposition within the movie.....the difference between the Americans getting off on the band, and the British kids from where Punk emerged....
The footage shot in Britain circa 1979 shows the country in a very bad way indeed. Young people, from where the Punks themselves manifested, are interviewed in grotty, rundown play areas in rain lashed council estates. Their language is more than a little peppered with 'F' and 'C' words and they offer very little promise of any kind of bright future.
An up and coming band called Terry And The Idiots are featured and front man Terry Sylvester also paints a grim picture of life heading into the new decade. He insists that young people these days have virtually nothing to live for; no money, no prospects, television which shuts down about 11:00pm. When his band are featured they turn out to be awful; a drunken hybrid of The Fall and The Swell Maps but with absolutely NONE of the talent of either. In a quite touching moment an audience member chucks a pint a Terry while he's 'singing' and the band simply let the 'song' meander to a halt, to no audience reaction whatsoever.
While in Britain, Kowalski and his film crew manage to capture some excellent footage of bands following in the Pistols jetstream. Generation X are seen recording the quite superb 'Kiss Me Deadly'; the Rich Kids are captured performing 'Pretty Vacant' with Glen Matlock and Midge Ure sharing vocal duties; an impossibly young looking X-Ray Spex are filmed performing a raucous 'Oh! Bondage, Up Yours' while looking like school kids. But the most fascinating footage belongs to the much maligned Sham 69 whose leader Jimmy Pursey is seen on several occasions begging his audience to stop fighting before launching into some admittedly quite powerful performances including a blistering 'Borstal Breakout'. Sham 69 have been denied the kudos dealt out to other Punk bands mostly because their concerts often attracted an unwanted Fascist Skinhead element, and regardless of Jimmy's endless protestations, the mud often seemed to stick.
Back in America we are shown some homegrown Punk.....some, like the Dead Boys and the Dicks seem to get it; others who never appear to be named, quite clearly don't, performing some grotesque pantomime of watered down rock with shock theatrics.
But also back in America we are 'treated' to the centerpiece of the film; an interview with Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen......oh dear!
In hindsight of the deaths of both Sid and Nancy, the interview seems skin-crawlingly ghoulish; Sid can barely stay conscious for more than five seconds, often passing out mid-answer and accidentally burning himself with lit cigarettes. Nancy, while not trying to wake Sid up either opens her legs suggestively to the camera or strips topless. I hate to speak ill of the dead but when Chloe Webb played Nancy in Alex Cox's 'Sid And Nancy', she was criticised for playing Nancy as a shriekingly unpleasant caricature; all I can say is that Chloe actually underplayed the reality. Nancy really comes across as grossly unpleasant.
So, to recap then; this is a fantastic movie capturing the Sex Pistols at their best and showing how Punk HAD to evolve from dead-end Britain. It also shows that most Americans of the time seemed to lack any sense of irony and either simply didn't 'get' Punk, or those who claimed they did merely saw it as a continuation of the burnt out, opiated counter culture dream that evolved in the 1960s.
It also paints a grim picture of the emerging 1980s Britain which would become a reality under Thatcher with the Brixton and Toxteth riots only a year away, and with the Iranian hostage situation and the storming of the Iranian embassy in London by the SAS just as Ronald Reagan slithered to power, the film captures that grim Post Punk feel beautifully.
And what of Sid? Watching the film you wonder if he had never got involved with Nancy and all the Class A bullshit that she encompassed, could he, and indeed the Pistols have gone on to greater things? The final image of the movie; John and Sid captured together defiantly on stage suggests this very thing.
As far as I am aware the film is not currently available on DVD. I know it was once available on a VHS release, and I seem to recall that it has only played once on British TV, way back in 1991, and it's a recording of that which I own.
Hopefully the film will one day get a full bells-and-whistles release but I wouldn't hold your breath.
Whatever you do though, please try and see this brilliant movie, and rediscover just why the Sex Pistols, and Punk in general, is so massively important to the history of popular music!
This is the final 10 minutes of the movie which features a storming version of 'Bodies' plus Augustus Pablo's beautiful 'A P Special' playing over the doomy end credits: