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Doc Talk | Peter Keough

Celebrity Club remembered, Johnny Rotten celebrated

Top: An image from <span id="U843206987266koG" style=" font-weight: bold; ;">“Do It Man.” Above: Johnny Rotten in “<span id="U843206987266vzD" style=" font-weight: bold; ;">The Public Image Is Rotten</span>.”</span> Shawna Shea Film Festival

The Shawna Shea Film Festival (Oct. 3-6 ) takes it name from a bright and promising 16-year-old who died in 1999 in an automobile accident. It will be screening two feature documentaries that shouldn’t be missed.

Tom Shaker and Norm Grant’s “Do It Man: The Story of The Celebrity Club” (Oct. 4 at 7 p.m. at the Quinebaug Valley Council for the Arts and Humanities, 111 Main St., Southbridge) celebrates the Providence music venue of the title, the first interracial club in New England, founded by the visionary impresario Paul Filippi. In the segregated 1950s it hosted such greats as Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie, Billie Holliday, and Fats Domino. The big names drew in white audiences, which indirectly helped ease racism in the city.

Bill Fulkerson and Kyle Kuchta’s “Survival of the Film Freaks” (Oct. 6 at 5 p.m. at the Starlite Gallery, 39 Hamilton St., Southbridge) takes a fond look at a less revered art form – the cult movie. With often-obscure and sometimes hilarious clips and commentary by aficionados, it shows how slasher, schlock, and arthouse cinema from the fringes reflected and influenced the history of pop culture.

Not fade away

Contrary to the lyrics of Neil Young’s 1979 song “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue),” Johnny Rotten, a.k.a. John Lydon, has neither burnt out nor faded away.

After splitting from the prototypical punk band the Sex Pistols, in 1978, he formed Public Image Ltd (PiL). It has proven to be a perennially inventive group that has persevered through various permutations to the present day.


Lydon, now 62 , also has gone through many permutations over the years — musical, sartorial, emotional, and physical — as is evident in Tabbert Fiiller’s documentary “The Public Image Is Rotten.” Interviewed today in his home in Los Angeles, Lydon sits, working on a beer, at a table in a kitchen with kids’ drawings on the wall. Though mellow and corpulent, he still sports a mohawk. In striking contrast to this domesticated image are clips of his younger self — razor thin, sardonic, and hilarious — taking on a variety of feckless interviewers. 

Fiiller also includes the sometimes-muddled recollections of past and present band members and managers. It’s quite a roster to choose from — the film’s end credits list 31 past and present members, 20 back-up musicians, and ten “non-musical” personnel. Among those interviewed, Ginger Baker, who played drums on PiL’s 1986 recording “Album” (the one with the anthemic hit song “Rise” and its chorus “Anger is an energy!”), is particularly amusing and incoherent.

As can be imagined, these changes are not easy to follow. What remains consistent is Lydon’s artistic intensity and integrity and a protean inventiveness that have taken him from post punk to a John Cage-like avant-garde and back again. Among the insights Lydon offers into his chaotic but resilient career and personal life is his memory of suffering from temporary, total amnesia as a child after a bout with meningitis. The horror and rage resulting from this experience can be heard in the film’s generous sampling of archival live performances — including one in which he announces to the audience “If you keep spitting on me I’m going to walk off the stage.”

He does so but returns. Despite the antipathy, neglect, and occasional success, Lydon’s music continues to burn and will not fade away.


“The Public Image Is Rotten” screens on Sept. 23 and Oct. 3 at 7:30 p.m. at the Regent Theatre, Arlington. .

Go to regenttheatre.com/details/the_public_image_is_rotten.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.