To borrow a description once applied to Sid Vicious, THE GREAT ROCK 'N' ROLL SWINDLE is a fabulous disaster. Conceived and mostly filmed after the breakup of the short-lived but influential band the Sex Pistols, the film was the project of band manager and creator Malcolm McLaren, who
walked away from it before it was finished due to lawsuits from the members of the band. The final film was edited together by director Julian Temple from footage shot over a period of three years. Combining performance footage, animation, staged sequences, and purposely misleading reenactments,
THE GREAT ROCK 'N' ROLL SWINDLE is occasionally incomprehensible but almost always entertaining.
McLaren's concept was for a film that showed how the band was created by him and turned into a success by going counter to the established rules of the entertainment world--all this in an effort to extort a fortune from the recording industry. This seemingly egotistical concept is not entirely
inappropriate, as McLaren did create and guide the band publicly (though whether successfully or destructively was the issue of lawsuits). It is also handled self-mockingly, making it impossible to accuse the film of anything other than generally trying to demolish viewers' preconceptions.
Dressed in a kinky leather mask, McLaren narrates the story of the beginning of the band over a re-creation of the Gordon Riots of the 18th century, a symbol of British anarchy. His plan is described as a military strategy, formulated into Ten Commandment-like rules. These largely have to do with
creating an image with no substance to which it can be (negatively) compared, all the while keeping public interest alive in the form of outrage. These tactics succeed by getting the Sex Pistols signed to and then bought out of lucrative recording contracts. The band falls apart when lead singer
Johnny Rotten quits during a tour of the United States. Bassist Sid Vicious goes to Paris, while guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook record in Brazil with new "singer" Ronnie Biggs, the notorious fugitive from the Great Train Robbery of 1963. McLaren flees England. Jones returns to London
in search of McLaren, and ends up at a porn theater watching the same film we are seeing.
It's hardly fair to call THE GREAT ROCK 'N' ROLL SWINDLE a documentary about the Sex Pistols. Singer Johnny Rotten (John Lydon) refused to be involved with the film at all, and is seen only in older footage. Sid Vicious (Simon Ritchie), whose death is acknowledged after the closing credits, was
involved only to the extent of filming several segments in Paris (one of which is the brilliant "My Way"). McLaren's conceit of the Sex Pistols as a plot to fleece the recording industry runs out of steam well before the film is over. Yet even as nothing more than a ramshackle frame, THE GREAT
ROCK 'N' ROLL SWINDLE is one of the few must-see rock films. For one thing, it's the single best source of footage of the Pistols, a band that few people saw even when they were around. It's also a welcome reminder of a time when people were literally terrified of "punk rock," a genre long since
assimilated safely into the mainstream: it's hard not to smirk during a news clip as a self-righteous Texan complains about Vicious hitting him with his bass. And many of the film's sequences have the sheer whimsicality of A HARD DAY'S NIGHT (1964) (particularly the cartoons.) Debuting director
Julien Temple hadn't yet developed the fondness for elaborate productions that would surface when he became a top video director in the 1980s.
According to Jon Savage's excellent book England's Dreaming, McLaren originally talked to screenwriters Rene Daalder (MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH) and Peter Cook about working on a Sex Pistols movie before hiring director Russ Meyer and writer Roger Ebert. Although they parted ways after a day of
shooting, it seems plausible that the Martin Boorman character who pops up in the Brazilian segments may have been a holdover from Meyer, who has used a similar character in a number of his films. (Violence, nudity, sexual situations, adult situations, profanity.)
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- Released: 1980
- Rating: R
- Review: To borrow a description once applied to Sid Vicious, THE GREAT ROCK 'N' ROLL SWINDLE is a fabulous disaster. Conceived and mostly filmed after the breakup of the short-lived but influential band the Sex Pistols, the film was the project of band manager and… (more)