It is early 1978, and punk rock has taken Britain by storm, with its sights now set on the United States. The movement's most visible ambassadors are the band The Sex Pistols who have suffered a turbulent time in the spotlight ever since gaining national exposure thanks to a disruptive London television interview, but it seems the establishment and even the man in the street are eagerly awaiting their self-destruction. This turns out to be what happens on their last ever tour, of the Southern American states, as organised by their manager Malcolm McLaren, with all of them utterly disillusioned and bassist Sid Vicious labouring under a serious heroin addiction...
Watching director Lech Kowalski's documentary today, so long after the fact, and the reaction will either be amusement or despair, alternating throughout each successive sequence. Certainly, he captured a lot of valuable footage, most prominently of the Pistols last tour - though of course they did reform decades later for the Filthy Lucre tour, and managed to get along pretty well, probably because they didn't have Sid's health to worry about, on account of him dying a few months after this film recorded an interview with him and his equally dead girlfriend Nancy Spungen. The ghosts of both haunt the piece, as no matter how much you laugh, the tragedy is there.
Though there's a degree of tragedy in the funny bits too, mostly thanks to a fellow called Terry Sylvester, who appears to have been lost to the mists of time after his co-starring role as the most honest of the punks we see here. Not because he writes and performs searing state of the nation salvos from the frontlines of the punk wars, but because he's a total loser whose band can barely play: we may be often told since that was a virtue in the style, but this demonstrates unforgivingly nothing could be further from the truth, and the bands who made even a cult name for themselves did at least hold some reserves of talent to draw from, which poor old Terry definitely did not.
Sid may have been an anomaly in that respect, he couldn't really play, was only in the band because he was a pal of John Lydon, and quickly became a problem when Nancy introduced him to hard drugs - speed had been the drug of choice for the punks in the early days, but heroin effectively spread like wildfire through the bands and their fans, leaving the music devastated as a pioneer, and the survivors with the requisite luck and ambition able to carry on. Not that all of them did, many gave up and got proper jobs, but the Pistols persevered separately, for example, and carved out careers in showbiz after a fashion. Nevertheless, the image of them halfheartedly going through the motions on that final San Francisco show, with Johnny Rotten's epitaph "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?", suggests the phenomenon burned too brightly to fade away.
In Britain, anyway, as American bands calling themselves punk would flourish to this day, no matter that the label ceased to apply after about the point Sid died and punk became New Wave. Those American fans we see are enthusiastic, but sound as if they don't quite "get" it, placing to much emphasis on the wrong elements, though not as much as those so offended by the Pistols they are looking to create violence as a reaction, and that includes the police (Lydon gets a pie thrown right on his head). Kowalski interviewed a few folks around London while he was there, and they seem a lot more authentic as to where the rock was coming from, living in a city that frankly looks like a bomb had hit it, either because they had or the money had run out for renovation. We also see the moralists railing against punk, but they don't understand why it was necessary any more than how anyone could enjoy it. Mind you, as a tearful Pursey tries to stop fighting at a Sham 69 gig, you wonder if anyone had the right idea about this Frankenstein's Monster originally designed to publicise a clothes shop.
[Second Sight's Blu-ray, subtitled A Right of Passage, looks and sounds mighty impressive considering how cheaply the film was made back in '78, and has a two-hour documentary on punk and D.O.A., plus a half hour featurette interview with the co-director, as extras.]