Who Killed Bill? (UK - DVD R2)
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The 1970s were a volatile time in Britain—the global fuel crisis was wreaking havoc, the three-day week came in, and the music charts were filled with sappy pap that was impossible to offend anyone with (unless you count decent music lovers, who suffered chest pains and indigestion whilst being subjected to that stuff). There was anger in the air and the vague whiff of revolution on the streets—the kids weren’t happy with the kind of music that their parents had been listening to in the previous decade; they wanted something that would be uniquely theirs. A group of four kids were put together by entrepreneur Malcolm McClaren to form a band—the result was the Sex Pistols. Whilst they weren’t truly the first punk band, the Pistols certainly popularised the movement and made such an indelible impression that their influence is still felt more than three decades after the group self-destructed.
Who Killed Bill? presents a series of vintage and relatively contemporary interviews and news footage of the Sex Pistols, charting their rise and fall and ending with their rebirth in the 90s to make back some of the money that they didn’t get when the Pistols were in their prime.
Despite its good intentions, Who Killed Bill? comes across as a desperate patchwork documentary cobbled together from whatever interview footage was available and affordable. Some of the interviews have little or no relevance to the career of the Sex Pistols—hardened Pistols fans will not be interested in the interviews with Vivien Westwood, as all she seems to do is just talk about her own experience as a fashion designer and speaks very little of the punk scene.
A symptom of the nature of the piece is that some interviews, though interesting, are almost endless. This documentary would have been better served by some judicial pruning and having linking material, or even a series of talking heads to punktuate (couldn’t resist it!) the archive interview footage. This is the great dichotomy of a project like this: do you preserve all of the material, or edit it for the purposes of pace?
What is fascinating is watching the evolution of John Lydon through the series of interviews, from scruffy Dickensian urchin Johnny Rotten in the footage from the early Sex Pistols footage, through to the angry argumentative Public Image Ltd era to the more relaxed and comfortable John Lydon seen in the late eighties onward. Lydon is an intelligent, articulate individual, but has a short temper, as evidenced when interviewed about the formation of PIL, where he snaps and walks out when quizzed on the Pistols.
Much of the earlier footage comes from a compilation episode of The London Weekend Show, hosted by Janet Street-Porter—this was JS-P when she was young and angry, as opposed to aged and crotchety as she is now, and it’s easy to forget that she was once at the forefront of television that documented popular culture and it’s great to watch her presenting footage on a group that would come to define a period of civil unrest in the 1970s.
Some of the footage from the seventies is truly amazing and shows just how prevalent punk fashions were, to the degree that it looks almost like fancy dress these days. Certainly the punk fashions were most seen in large urban areas like London or Manchester, but just to see fresh-looking footage from the period really makes the era seem all the more ‘real’ to those who were too young to see it.
One thing which comes across is just how arrogant John Lydon was at the time, captured at the height at their notoriety, a different person from when the group was starting out. He rejects all other musicians and groups, to the point of rejecting all other styles of music. The voice of reason comes via original Pistols bassist Glen Matlock, who offers insightful comments without any kind of pretence or arrogant self-importance.
The death of Sid is mainly covered through a number of American news reports, which puts a different spin of the story than the UK tabloid press gleefully rolled out up his demise. As much as the movie Sid and Nancy contains sizable chunks of fiction, a news item about the release of it—including an interview with director Alex Cox—is dusted off to add another angle to the death of the bands’ replacement bassist.
Although a little off-topic, with us being diehard Rocky Horror fans, it brought a smile to see a billboard for the stage show during the vintage 1977 footage, playing at the Kings’ Road Theatre - quirkiness of the Richard O’Brien’s evergreen musical would prove to be a launch pad for punks, as they saw a kindred unconventional nature in it.
The interviews with indirect parties which take place after the group went to the wall seem somewhat superfluous. A very contrite, quiet Malcolm McClaren, who—like Lydon—is captured before the tornado of success altered him. We really can’t stand him, nor can any other dedicated Pistols fans. McClaren was at the head of an uncontrollable set of circumstances which catapulted a force of nature to the height of notoriety. Desperate to make a name for himself, he used the opportunity which the Sex Pistols movie— The Great Rock and Roll Swindle—afforded him to rewrite events and become king of the punks. It’s annoying to think that there are still people who think that his version of events is the gospel truth.
The Westwood and McClaren interviews and retrospectives just further the bullshit notion that the Sex Pistols were the equivalent of a manufactured boy-band and that they were controlled by the artsy-fartsy McClaren. McClaren does stand up against Trevor McDonald whilst being interviewed by the cricket-loving newsreader and almost makes you admire the guy. What pissed us off about this interview was that McDougnut tries to deliberately bait his subject by describing the Pistols as ‘talentless’—this is rich coming from the man who tried to branch out from news-reading by going into a topical quiz show ( News Knight) that bombed for two reason: firstly, it wasn’t funny, and secondly, McDonald was reading all of his ‘spontaneous’ witticisms from an autocue in the same stilted, unnatural manner that the nation had come to accept as normal for so many decades.
The aforementioned Great Rock and Roll Swindle gets a mention via the hideous show Check It Out, with the presenter countering the positive comments with a swipe at Lydon, who had previously walked off when becoming angry over inane questions from the northern presenter with an hilarious bubble-perm.
What also irritates about this documentary is the lack of music from the Sex Pistols; like many unofficial documentaries on music groups, Who Killed Bill? is constructed from archive interviews and all traces of music has been edited out—what is heard here is a fairly generic piece of newly-recorded music in the style of the Pistols; this sounds fine when heard a couple of times, but it soon begins to grate as it is trotted out to add some substance to footage of the group on state where they could afford (or be bothered to pay) the fees to use the music. The Sex Pistols weren’t exactly the Beatles, so in theory it shouldn’t have been that expensive to obtain permission to use the songs?
The 2002 re-release of God Save the Queen—time for the golden jubilee—is lambasted by Simon Bates, calling it out-of-date and as though modern pop had nothing to offer. That’s the key word there, dickhead, ‘pop’. The Pistols were never merely pop, and any popularity or monies generated at the time were purely incidental. This comment seems rather rich coming from a guy many think is already dead whilst the rest wish that he was just that. He probably waited for the interview to finish before chowing down on a nice, juicy frog, annoyed that his green-skinned slave can’t dance to punk.
Probably the most interesting interview is saved until last, an unedited tete-a-tete with John Lydon from 2007, in which he talks for minutes and is quite charming to the unseen female reporter. He swears a few times, refers to his former manager as Malcolm ‘wanker’ McClaren and belches now and again, but this really is quite a fascinating interview with the man who was, along with his fellow band members, described as ‘public enemy number one’. This interview, more than all of the others, shows Lydon relaxed and eloquent, perfectly happy with his advancing years and even cutting the interviewer some slack now and again—far cry from the Lydon who could be seen earlier in this documentary abusing the press during the 1990s press-calls.
Speaking of the press-calls, it’s interesting to see that the more easygoing Lydon of later, calmer years snaps right back into character when the Pistols reformed, getting very angry and defensive about his roots, the class system and the fiscal reasons for the band getting back together for another tour. This leads into possibly the most annoying, patronising segment on the disc, being the ‘hilarious’ article from an Australian news item, complete with a camp presenter pushing a ‘comedy’ swear-bleeper during a press conference with the guys. Fittingly, Lydon walks off during an interview with the guy.
Coming as a runner up in terms of best interview is the piece where Janet Street-Porter scores the first interview with Lydon in three years, detailing how since freshly leaving the band, he can’t even release any of his own music without McClaren getting a large chunk of the profits. His hatred for his former manager shines through, planning to subtly kill him through some kind of car accident. Despite homicidal thoughts regarding his pretentious, Fagin-like manager, Lydon is much more humble here, the breakup of the Pistols separating him from the barrage of press which he naturally pushed back against when confronted by it.
It’s a pity that there isn’t really much in the way of interview footage with the other members of the Sex Pistols - John Lydon is always a good interviewer, despite whatever mood he is in, but it would have been nice to hear from guitarist Steve Jones, who was always good for a laugh. Never mind.
When watching the archive footage, you cannot help but notice a very definite contrast between the ‘yoof’ of today and those back in the 70s, with those of yesteryear being just as bloody-minded, but coming across as goofier and playful. Today, kids are more confident and savvy, with many arguing that this is a more dangerous and pertinent combination than goofy violence.
Unfortunately, Odeon has seen fit to send us review copies that have not only been burned onto DVD-R, but have also been ‘squashed to DVD-5’, as it states on the discs. We can’t give the image quality a proper review, as the copies sent to us look pretty blocky, which is obviously down to the encoding for the review copies.
For what it’s worth, the retail copies will probably look pretty good—all of the archive interviews have been blown up to 1.78:1 and still look fine. The newer interviews come off best, with proper framing and better audio.
The soundtrack to Who Killed Bill? sounds fine—presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, the older interviews are as intelligible as they will ever sound and the ‘Pistiche’ music—brought in to replace the Sex Pistols songs - sounds pretty robust.
The only extra on this disc is a trailer for the forthcoming documentary Sid, which looks at the life and early demise of the Sex Pistol’s notorious bassist. This is looks fabulous, coming complete with interviews from people who knew him, along with archive material—this would make for an ideal companion for Who Killed Bill?—we eagerly await it!
Whilst it’s a great disappointment that there is no linking narrative to make the interviews flow better and that the Pistols’ tracks have been removed, Who Killed Bill? is still a great way of catching up on vintage and fairly recent interviews and footage of one of the most notorious music groups of the 20th century.
Review by Wilson Bros
Exempt from classification
Release Date: 22nd March 2010
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 English
Extras: 'Sid' Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Cast: John Lydon, Glen Matlock, Steve Jones Paul Cook, Janet Street-Porter
Length: 120 minutes
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