Sex Pistols Go Boom
Iconic punk final tour implosion in D.O.A.
1978: After a stormy two-year career, English punk icons the Sex Pistols imploded on American soil following their abortive U.S. tour. Victims of their own chaotic existence (and Malcolm McLaren's chronic mismanagement), they'd leave an enormous, permanent stain of influence on rock & roll.
New York filmmaker Lech Kowalski, backed by High Times publisher Tom Forcade, filmed guerrilla coverage of all seven concerts (including legendary stops in San Antonio and Dallas), plus attendant reportage of the band's wake as they razed Dixie, headed toward their San Francisco denouement. Before resultant tour documentary D.O.A.: A Right of Passage premiered at New York's Waverly Theater in 1981 (complete with a hilarious rude running commentary from the attendant Dead Boys, brief D.O.A. co-stars themselves), Forcade and Pistols bassist Sid Vicious had both died, and most of the bands featured were long gone. Following the occasional midnight screening on the early Eighties grindhouse circuit, it eventually saw brief home video release, achieving its cult classic reputation through increasingly degenerate, handmade VHS copies, passed surreptitiously. Forty years after that catastrophic tour, after a Blu-ray restoration by MVD Entertainment, it finally returns to the big screen.
D.O.A.'s fraught genesis could plot a hilarious indie docucomedy. Kowalski had permission to film from neither the band nor Warner Bros., their U.S. record label. His insistence on a gonzo/pirate production led to hiring dummy film crews to run interference as the real crew snuck cameras and sound equipment under their coats, but realizing priceless Pistols footage alone wouldn't suffice in communicating punk's impact, he and the crew flew to England. There he lensed a gloomy, highly narcotized interview with Vicious and notorious girlfriend Nancy Spungen; an indignant conversation with Conservative Party politician Bernard Brook Partridge, who seemingly viewed his job as protecting the British public from the Sex Pistols; and a mind-numbing monologue from punk everykid Terry Sylvester, leader of the aptly-named Terry & the Idiots. Sylvester obviously learned to field interviews from Johnny Rotten TV appearances; his impersonation gets an F-minus. Kowalski also captured extraordinary footage of several vintage Brit-punk bands in full pogo, including original Sex Pistol Glen Matlock's Rich Kids essaying a rather manicured "Pretty Vacant," and Sham 69 ramming "Borstal Breakout" down the frothing maw of the Nazi skinhead audience they never wanted.
Then you have Forcade – the Yippie who publicly antagonized Abbie Hoffman, and made headlines for hurling a cream pie in the face of a pornography commissioner – amping the already paranoia-and-chaos infected atmosphere, his inferences that the FBI were trailing the tour prevailing to the present. The telephone game ultimately resulted in Sex Pistols singer John Lydon's recent memoir Anger Is an Energy asserting High Times was a front for the CIA.
The results: impeccable. It's not just the stunning Sex Pistols performances (given hilarious subtitles). There are great cinematic moments, like a long tracking shot of a hand-held camera walking through a rehearsal complex, before entering a room where X-Ray Spex blasts through "Oh Bondage Up Yours!" which seamlessly cuts to the band in full live roar at pivotal London punk pub the Hope and Anchor. The Sid and Nancy footage affirms actress Chloe Webb accurately caught Spungen's shrieking-harpy persona in Alex Cox's biopic Sid & Nancy, although Gary Oldman's performance was more coherent than the real Vicious here. ("Um, what was the question?") Seeing Generation X recording "Kiss Me Deadly" is alone worth the admission price. Ultimately, D.O.A.'s the perfect punk movie, its production values the cinematic equivalent of the best punk records: raw, loud, crude, and basic.