Sydney Film Festival Review: The Public Image Is Rotten (USA, 2017) is a thorny look at the love & defiance of Johnny the PIL

This is not a love song- it’s a review of Public Image Limited’s (PiL) documentary. The film, The Public Image Is Rotten is one that focuses on John Lydon AKA Johnny Rotten AKA the band’s one mainstay (just like The Cure’s Robert Smith). It shows an outspoken and spiky man who has tempered through age and time and with his co-conspirators (and like the stars at Factory Records) made some great music and occasionally some atrocious decisions.

This film is directed by Tabbert Fiiller who is a fan of the band. This documentary does not spoon feed the audience and delve too deeply into some aspects of the group’s history. The Sex Pistols are dealt with incredibly swiftly and the story focuses on the chapters in Lydon’s life that happened after he was a rotten teenage pistol.

The story here attempts to be a chronological one and starts in 1978 with PiL’s first ever show. The gig happened in the same year that Sid Vicious died and became a rock ‘n’ roll myth. You get the sense that Johnny could have become a casualty just like his former bandmate. But instead of sinking Messer Rotten opens up his wings and flies, experimenting with different styles and enlisting a revolving door of different artists and collaborators.

There are interviews here with many of PiL’s different members. This includes the documentary’s stars Martin Atkins and Jah Wobble as well as Cream’s Ginger Baker. The supporting cast of thousands (which is sadly missing Lydon’s long-time partner, Nora Forster) speak candidly about the tumultuous times recording and touring with this cult band and the ensuing circus.

Messer Rotten as always is fascinating to listen to. His approach is very relaxed and laidback. The notoriously difficult interviewee is captured at home, sometimes in his pyjamas and in some respects he has sobered (the man that sang “Anarchy In The UK” actually considers supporting the monarchy at one point). But Rotten is also cheeky and obnoxious at other moments although this latter quality is more apparent in the archive material from when he was an angry young man (Molly Meldrum famously said he punched Johnny when he interviewed the Pistols).

Fans of PiL will be treated to rare and grainy performances of the band performing live and on television over the years. There is also a fabulous soundtrack here that includes songs like “Rise,” “This Is Not A Love Song” and “Public Image,” among others. A number of celebrity fans are also interviewed including: Moby, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Flea from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Filmmakers, Julian Temple who directed both Sex Pistols’ films and Don Letts also describe the band’s contribution and influence. This all combines to make a rather serviceable career retrospective about the group even if the documentary is by no means definitive.

The Public Image Is Rotten is a rather safe documentary about a cult band and their post-punk circus. It’s a film that could have dug a little deeper into the subject matter and history at times but it is nonetheless a colourful and engaging look at this experimental, ambitious and weird group. The Public Image Is Rotten is one rocking music documentary about PiL. It is defiantly not a love letter or hagiography but rather a punk hodgepodge of different ingredients including Rotten’s Country Life butter commercials and a young punk who spits that he will never go away. Don’t ever change Johnny!


The Public Image is Rotten was reviewed as part of Sydney Film Festival. Remaining screenings are being held on the 12th and 13th of June. Tickets and more details are available HERE.


This content has recently been ported from its original home on The Iris and may have formatting errors – images may not be showing up, or duplicated, and galleries may not be working. We are slowly fixing these issue. If you spot any major malfunctions making it impossible to read the content, however, please let us know at editor AT