The Public Image Is Rotten Premieres at Tribeca Film Festival

John Lydon and wife attend the premiere of The Public Image Is Rotten. (Photo: Victoria Fennell)

John Lydon’s candor is a force quite unlike any other in show business—his unabashed honesty provides a refreshing reprieve from the usual air of prepared statements and good PR. Any pretense of polite conversation is obliterated when the 61-year-old Public Image Ltd. frontman is involved in an evening’s proceedings.

Such was the case when the former Sex Pistol—known as “Johnny Rotten” to fans of the short-lived 70s punk band—arrived at the Tribeca Film Festival for a screening of the documentary The Public Image is Rotten.

From the moment Lydon burst onto the red carpet—accompanied by his wife Nora Forster, manager John “Rambo” Stevens, and a thick smell of cigarettes—he commanded the conversation. The man whose early career contained countless standoffs with the press seemed much more comfortable in front of cameras than those earlier instances would suggest. A more mellow Lydon mugged for the camera and joked with reporters, posing with various cast and crew members on the red carpet.

Directed by Tabbert Filler, The Public Image is Rotten details the evolution of Lydon’s post-Pistols band, from their early days immediately following the dissolution of the Sex Pistols, to their recent reunion and current incarnation. The screening was followed by a panel discussion with Lydon and Tabbert, moderated by Variety’s Cynthia Littleton.

Littleton could not get a word in throughout the panel discussion that she was technically moderating, and Tabbert struggled for the first half of it to read off a list of people to thank.

Lydon’s off-the-cuff honesty and charismatic likeability overwhelmed audience members who laughed with a nervous appreciation for Lydon’s inimitable demeanor. Where most celebrities try to toe the line between honesty and controversy, Lydon revels in blunt honesty—his disdain for dishonesty is one of his most dominant characteristics.

““This is the essence of it: be true to your word,” Lydon said during the first of many panel-derailing speeches. “If you tell no lie you get no problems.”

As a film, Public Image would be a perfectly serviceable retrospective, the likes of which usually appear at around this stage in a band’s career. What sets it apart is the sheer likeability of the cast, which mostly consists of current and former “PiL” members. Centered primarily around an interview with Lydon in his Los Angeles home, the film begins with the tumultuous disbanding of the Sex Pistols before chronicling several decades of Lydon and company’s musical evolution under the PiL brand.

Peppered with rare archival footage of concert performances and infamous TV interviews, the film serves first and foremost as a glimpse into the deeper aspects of Lydon’s character. His disdain for lies was explained early on as the result of a traumatic childhood illness.

“At age seven I got meningitis and that put me into a coma that lasted for three months…and when I came out of it, it took me about four years to regain my memory,” Lydon said. “I did not even know my own name, couldn’t even recognize my own mother.”

Lydon attributes this uncertainty about what is true to his unique inability to be dishonest, especially during interviews.

The rest of the film features interviews with several former and current members of PiL including former drummer Martin Atkins, former bassist Jah Wobble, and Red Hot Chili Peppers member and former potential PiL bassist, Flea.

Filler did an excellent job at reaching out to as many people in PiL’s revolving door of members as possible, at one point even interviewing a very elderly drum instructor who was hired to play with PiL for a single show.

While the film is bolstered by its diverse cast, its true strength is—much like the panel—built on Lydon’s indelible charisma.

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