“I LIKE IRRITATING PEOPLE”June 29th, 2010
A Conversation with Punk Documentarian Julien Temple
by Rebecca Boone
When director Julien Temple first heard the Sex Pistols, he was a student at the National Film School just outside London, intent on making a film about youth culture in England. He asked the band to participate. They impolitely declined.
Undeterred, Temple began sneaking a borrowed school camera into Sex Pistols shows to document the early days of the band. When Malcolm McLaren, the band’s manager, finally caught him, Temple convinced McLaren to allow him to continue taping to help publicize the band. Temple and McLaren went on to co-write the mock-documentary The Great Rock and Roll Swindle (1980), which features some of the band’s best-known footage.
But Temple doesn’t believe that iconic images tell the whole story. “I think the best things have never been photographed,” he told music critic Sean Nelson, who moderated a conversation with him at SIFF last June. “I only taped 0.4% of what was going on back then.”
So went the story, as Temple shared with a packed house at SIFF Cinema how he became a documentarian to London’s two great era-defining punk bands, the Sex Pistols and the Clash. Temple is known for two films about the Sex Pistols—one being the mocking Swindle, and the other the surprisingly heartfelt The Filth and the Fury (2000) some 20 years later.
This year he returns with two more music-themed films: Glastonbury, which documents the 30th anniversary of the famous British music festival; and Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, a posthumous portrait of the life of the late Clash frontman, who was also Temple’s close personal friend.
After the breakup of the Sex Pistols, Temple went on to direct music videos for the Stray Cats, Judas Priest, Van Halen, and the Rolling Stones. But he said he found the process of going from working with punk bands to directing commercial videos to be “a huge moral compromise” and he was generally unimpressed by rock celebrities.
Of the Rolling Stones, Temple thought they were “jet set trash….wealthy idiot Warhol crowd….nonsense.”
He also denies that he directed Van Halen’s video for “Jump,” although his name is clearly listed in the video’s credits. When Nelson jokingly asked what Temple would have done differently if he had directed it, Temple replied, “I would have lined them up against the wall and shot them.”
With Strummer, which screened after the interview, Temple is clearly interested in returning to his punk rock roots. A meticulously researched and deeply affectionate portrait, the film proved well received by the enthusiastic Seattle crowd.
The two met as punk squatters in 1970’s West London, living in abandoned buildings and stealing milk bottles, Temple said. His initial impression of Strummer was that he was “Marlon Brando meets Julius Caesar… [a] weirdly non-punk kind of person.”
Temple claims Strummer took an immediate dislike to him. Both young men were at pains to hide their middle-class, Cambridge-educated backgrounds in order to maintain their punk authenticity, and having another suburban kid around annoyed Strummer.
After the break-up of the Sex Pistols and the early success of the Clash, members of the punk scene took sides. Sex Pistols fans believed they were the only “true” punk rockers, and did not consider The Clash a real punk band because of their expansive interest in politics and world music. Temple sided with the Pistols fans, which severely annoyed Strummer. The two ended up estranged, and were not on speaking terms for the next 25 years.
One day, Temple’s wife mentioned that her school friend, Lucinda, was coming to visit with her new boyfriend. Temple was very surprised to see Joe Strummer walk through the front gate. Strummer, in turn, was surprised to find Temple trying to build a hot-air balloon in his yard.
Wary of one another after such a long separation, Temple and Strummer ended up drinking a couple of bottles of wine and working together on the balloon. The next morning, they called Temple’s kids downstairs so they could watch the balloon take off—which instead promptly burst into flames. According to Temple, Strummer said, “I love this place! I’ve got to live here!” He bought the property just down the road, and he and Temple became good friends.
Before the screening, Temple told the crowd that he had begun a documentary about the Clash in 1976, and that “maybe this film has been 30 years in the making.”
During the post-screening Q & A, Temple was asked how the film was doing internationally. He said that the reviews had been positive. “I think the film would have got 5 stars if I’d put subtitles in. But I like irritating people.”