Interview: BADASSS Winner Julien Temple at 2015 Chicago CIMMfest

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CHICAGO – In receiving the official BADASSS Award at the 2015 Chicago International Movies & Music Fest (CIMMFest), legendary rock documentary maker Julien Temple simply said, “Badass is not a phrase we use in England. I’ve never been called a badass, I prefer ‘enfant terriblé,’ with a hope toward ‘monstre sacré.’”

And so it goes with one of the most prolific and influential rock documentarians in cinema history, with the whole evolution of the music form contained in his associations with The Kinks, the Clash (through Joe Strummer), the Rolling Stones and the Sex Pistols. What began as a student obsession with the discovery of the Sex Pistols in the 1970s, fueled a lifelong pursuit of rock documentary truth, feature film adventure and music video stylings. Julien Temple has provided the sights and the sounds.

Gary Kuzminski, Julien Temple, Shannon Flynn
Julien Temple (center), with CIMMFest officials Gary Kuzminski and Shannon Flynn, April 18, 2015
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for

Temple was born in London in the early 1950s, and discovered the beginnings of his document journey as a film student 23 years later (story below). His premiere Sex Pistols music video was “God Save the Queen” in 1977, and was followed by his debut documentary about the band, “The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle” (1980). From there, he directed many classic videos in the early MTV era, including “Rock This Town” (Stray Cats). “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” (Culture Club), “Come on Eileen” (Dexy Midnight Runners), “She was Hot” (Rolling Stones), “Smooth Operator” (Sade), “Free Fallin’” (Tom Petty) and “I’m Your Baby Tonight” (Whitney Houston).

Temple has dabbled in feature films, adapting “Absolute Beginners” in 1986, and the subsequent weak box office results caused an exile to Hollywood, where he was given the assignment for “Earth Girls Are Easy” (1988). Both films have cult status, and embody sensibilities that are symbolically and nostalgically “1980s.” He returned to rock docs with the essential Sex Pistols anthology, “The Filth and the Fury” (2000), “Joe Strummer, The Future is Unwritten” (2006), “Ray Davies - Imaginary Man” (2010) and his latest, “The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson” (2015), a story of the guitarist from ‘Dr. Feelgood,” who was diagnosed with inoperable cancer, and found a purpose in life he never knew he had.

This was all part of the energy at the 2015 CIMMfest, which concludes on April 19th. Besides the retrospect that showcased his films, Julien Temple appeared at many of the screenings for introductions and Q&As. caught up with him after he received his BADASSS Award designation. Which film being showcased in your CIMMfest retrospect makes you most proud?

Julien Temple: ‘Absolute Beginners,’ because I spent 25 years unable to work because of that film. I didn’t want to bring that up, but in my view you have been vindicated with the film’s cult status.

Temple: Well, I know if it had been a big success I would have been found dead in a Hollywood jacuzzi a long time ago, with lots of hookers and cocaine. [laughs] If the 1960s British invasion – which I’m sure you’ve become an expert at – defined the 1960s evolution in sound, what do you think your video/music revolution did to the evolution of music entertainment?

Temple: Killed it off, hopefully. [Laughs] What is the greatest myth or legend that has been repeated over and over, that was never true when telling the story of the Sex Pistols?

Temple: It’s the idea, when they were starting out, that people tell me ‘I saw the Sex Pistols,’ is one of the most flagrant lies in history. That audience never existed, man. It burns me when people tell me, ‘they saw them.’ I’m sure you’ve told this before, but what was your first encounter with the Sex Pistols?

Temple: My mind goes back to the summer of 1975, which wasn’t as warm as 1976, but it wasn’t bad. [laughs] As I recall, I was a film student at the National Film School in London, and my fellow students and I had our own chunk of the city in West London back then. On a Sunday afternoon, my favorite thing was to go down to the Imperial Docks of London, which were closed down back then, and was an incredible industrial wasteland – rusted planes, ships, the whole of the British empire rusting away. It was amazing trip to go there on a Sunday, it was silent, with only newspapers blowing in the wind.

Sid Vicious
Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols in ‘The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle’ (1980), created by Julien Temple
Photo credit: Virgin Films So there was a club of some sort in the area?

Temple: No. I hear this “Faces” song playing in the wind. It was wafting out of nowhere. I followed the sound – ‘Alice in Wonderland-like – to this 18th Century warehouse. I pushed open the door and walked up the stairs, as the music kept wafting down. They were destroying this cover song, whoever they were…[singing] ’I wanna say that I hate you baby…’

I came to the top of the loft, with a worm’s eye view of the band’s practice, silhouetted in front of these big windows. Remember, the style of the moment was flairs and long hair, and here were these guys had skinny legged skin tight jeans, big fat feet, with brothel creeper Teddy Boy shoes. mohair jumpers in yellow and black, and short, spiky hair which I had never seen before. They were like insect men from Mars. Who the f**k were these guys? What was their reaction to you?

Temple: I listened to them for awhile, and when they stopped playing I approached them with ‘I’m doing this film in my film school, would you do the soundtrack?’ Their reply? “F**k off, you middle class c*nt.” I thought, okay…

They then told me they were doing a gig in a month, and I noted that, and I went back to my friends in West London, and told them I had seen the future. Everyone was asking, what is there name? And I thought, ‘F**k, I forgot to ask them.’ [laughs] For six weeks, I was scanning the music papers looking for any weird name, and when I saw ‘Sex Pistols,’ I thought it had to be them.

The rest is history, darling. I can’t believe I told that again. I appreciate that.

Temple: It was a decent retelling this time. I do get a bit bored telling it, but that felt good. [laughs] You directed music videos for bands like the Rolling Stones and The Kinks, which had to make the transition from where they came from into that MTV era. What was the biggest concern for those older groups, in trying to get into circulation with those videos?

Temple: Make up! [laughs] I was trying to get the Rolling Stones to do blackface, because they had co-opted the blues, and I nearly got them to do it, an inch away. But somebody said, you can’t do that. So my ambition to have the Stones in blackface – with big white lips – went unrealized. Which of the rock artists that you’ve met surprised you regarding how they actually were, and who do you think is the most mysterious?

Julien Temple
BADASSS Julien Temple
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for

Temple: Whitney Houston. I was surprised about how ‘badass’ she was. She was far more that way than I could ever dream of…unfortunately, she’s gone now. I was just surprised by how soulful and real a person she was, in working for her, because at first I thought I was just doing it for the money. [laughs] I loved her, actually.

We were shooting the video in New York City, at a West Side park. In her honor, the record company had put up these big black drapes, so she wouldn’t have to see the homeless residing there. When she saw that, she freaked out, and went through the park shredding these stupid things, screaming ‘who the f**k do you think I am?’ She stole my heart at that moment. So she was opposite to how her image was?

Temple: We were flying back to Los Angeles, and despite a smoking ban, the first thing she did was take a cigarette out and light it. The plane officials said, ‘Ms. Houston, that’s a $1000 dollar fine.’ By the end of the flight, she must have dropped 30 grand. [laughs] She was a f**king badass, and I wish she’d never met Bobby Brown. What did you learn in shooting ‘The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson,’ about your own mortality and feelings toward death?

Temple: I just wanted to feel like him, with no negativity toward life. Why be sad about things, when life is so great. Well, you’ve had a ‘pirate’s life’ my friend.

Temple: I’m still going, I’m still sailing the Black Pearl! The Black F**king Pearl! Okay, since you had to repeat some anecdotes throughout, what question do you wish somebody would ask you, and what would be your answer?

Temple: I don’t want any more questions, man.

CIMMfest, the Chicago International Movies and Music Festival, runs from April 16th through April 19th, 2015. Click here for day-by-day schedules and to purchase tickets. senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2015 Patrick McDonald,

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