Phil Strongman’s new documentary Anarchy! McLaren Westwood Gang is a politically-fueled, fashion-conscious deeper look at how the English punk explosion was ignited—how the bomb was built and under what circumstances, in other words.
Coming in at almost two and a half hours with an incredible cast of characters, Anarchy! McLaren Westwood Gang traces Malcolm McClaren back to his birth with loads of never before seen films and photos, personal information and interviews with family members, friends and others, taking us into the all important mid-sixties where the real nucleus of the Sex Pistols concept begins to form within the Situationist movement, King Mob (the UK equivilent), art school and observing the tribal customs and costumes of rock ‘n roll fanaticism.
The 1968 the French student riots had a huge influence on McLaren, who travelled to Paris at the time, and there were key players from that era who played recurring roles in his life. Much of the concepts and ideas—art, slogans, everything really—originated there and then. The interviews with the people from this period were what I wanted to see most and there was no disappointment. The interviews with Malcolm himself indicate that he still was speaking in slogans right up to the very end.
If you’re looking for yet another love letter to punk rock (yawn) with the same old crap stories, then keep on pogoing as this is a very interesting (for the most part) tale of politics, sex, drugs, bombs, rock ‘n roll, and the all important fashion accessories to wear whilst bombing and rocking and rolling and fucking on drugs. If punk never really happened and this was just a wild tale of a bunch of crazed young people that tried to accomplish what punk wrought and failed, it would still be just as interesting. The fact that first an entire country and then the entire world sat up, noticed, listened and actually feared this tiny group of absurd-looking lunatics (some leading, most following) on their search and destroy mission is incredible to contemplate. Today they’d just be given their own reality TV show.
It’s a bit of a revelation for those who think a few drunk idiots formed a band and yelled and jumped around a lot while desperately trying to learn how to play their instruments. (Even at this late date it is still being said that these guys could not play or sing, which is ridiculous as is easily proven by any Sex Pistols live performance video from any period.) However, someone could have done enough homework to know to leave out Ben Westwood’s totally wrong assumption (stated as fact, of course) that Sid’s mom and girlfriend gave him heroin that he overdosed on (I personally was there that night and I and enough other people have done countless interviews stating what really happened). He even calls Methadone, Methadrone (good name for a band actually). Other than these two minor problems, and the rather large objection that for a film titled Anarchy! McLaren Westwood Gang it’s quite light on the Viv Westwood side of things, this very long film goes by very quickly, and is really well made. Director Strongman was good friends with McLaren, having worked in the Glitterbest offices (the Sex Pistols management company) and was an actual eyewitness to much of what he is discussing here.
There lots of great interviews with everyone from Adam Ant to Don Letts to Tracey Emin to Boy George (who tells a great story about when he sang for Bow Wow Wow) to Sex Pistol Paul Cook (with amazing black and white footage of the Pistols hanging around at the Berlin wall). The music is honestly the least of the subjects focused on. In fact much of the film is framed with scenes of girls modeling Dame Westwood’s fashions (partially topless) to a modern soundtrack with an operatic vocal sung onscreen. (And thank god for that. I’m sick of these formulaic punk rock docs, aren’t you?)
There’s a lot to get out of this film, historically speaking. It’s intelligent and everything a documentary should be. It just may not be about what you thought it was going to be about. This is the history of European Anarchism as it helps beget the birth of the Sex Pistols. It’s also the story of a man who broke all the rules before that was fashionable, who ran blindly into the fire more than once and always came out the other side… many times with the prize. Or at least some money. I’ve already watched Anarchy! McLaren Westwood Gang three times and I’m not the type to really ever watch anything even twice, certainly not in the same day.
All Malcolm McLaren ever wanted was to be something akin to the “next Andy Warhol.” It’s an idiosyncratic aspiration to be sure, but one category that he (and perhaps he alone) truly belonged in.
“Be reasonable,” as the Situationists chanted, “demand the impossible.”
The Los Angeles event is tonight and is part of Tamie Adaya’s Britweek 2016 events at Hotel Shangri-La. The screening is at 7PM and there will be a Q&A with director Phil Strongman afterwards.