Britain's greatest rock doc director holds forth at definitive length on punk, class, London and dying for cinema...
Julien Temple’s directing career has been struck seemingly stone-dead twice. After working with Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols on The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle (1979), then again after the flop big-budget British jazz musical Absolute Beginners (1986), he was made a notorious cinema untouchable in the UK. Exiled in Hollywood, he fell back on his parallel life as a landmark pop video auteur.
But during the last decade Temple has bounced back to become the world’s most exhilarating and influential rock documentarian, with films using cut-up, rapid-fire film grammar to tell a story of post-World War Two England through its greatest rock bands. A more darkly human retelling of the Pistols’ story, The Filth and the Fury (2000), was followed by Joe Strummer - The Future is Unwritten (2007), and Oil City Confidential (2009), about punk’s early Seventies pub-rock John the Baptists, Dr. Feelgood.
A brace of BBC films, Ray Davies: Imaginary Man (2010) and Dave Davies: Kinkdom Come (2011), helped secure the unprecedented approval of both the feuding Davies brothers for a possible feature film about their old band, The Kinks, which Temple’s now developing and could be his crowning glory.
Another candidate for that position is his latest, London: The Modern Babylon. Expanding the deep sense of place in Oil City Confidential’s Essex and another of his docs, Requiem for Detroit? (2009), this loving tribute to his home town saw him sift and splice 6,000 hours of archive reaching back to the 1890s. With trademark chutzpah, X-Ray Spex’s “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” soundtracks the Suffragettes as past and present clash and cohere, in a metropolis made of music and the mob, rich and poor. The DVD of this surging, inspiring film is out this week.
Temple lives in Somerset these days (Glastonbury  is another recent work), but I meet him in his Ladbroke Grove office, festooned with old punk mantras, reminders of ideals he’s kept. As well as The Kinks, future subjects include Marvin Gaye and the next Olympic city, Rio. At 58, Temple has hit a golden run, and isn’t slowing down.
NICK HASTED: You’ve talked about London: The Modern Babylon acting as a form of time-travel. And watching its early, amazing scenes of people walking around the West End in the 1890s and 1900s - which looks like a futuristic, steam-punk place, with steam-engines zooming on overhead rails by Charing Cross - I felt happily transported.
JULIEN TEMPLE: I know, they’re very beautiful scenes. We were lucky to find 11 minutes of 1904 footage in Australia that hasn’t really been seen, and that gives it a freshness. We also tried to find moments where people are in close-up and looking at the camera, so you get a strange kind of emotional connection with them that you often don’t get in early archive. There’s a phantasmagorical feeling to that footage, that you really are entering another time-dimension than anything you’re familiar with.
Did you feel transported and lost yourself at times, going into the archives?
Yeah. I looked at 6,000 hours of London footage (an example, pictured left). It got to the point where if I didn’t have 30 hours of DVDs at the weekend, I’d be cold turkey. The beginning of it is very hard, where you enter into this place with an incredible number of choices, and you're questioning yourself. But once you start finding a grammar for the project, and the way things stick together, in the end it’s like playing music - it’s like a sax solo, where all these harmonics seem to visually work. There is an alchemy in getting that archive and reanimating it to mean something new.
You’ve said that you take on the character of your films as you make them. Were those long weekends with all that archive swimming through you part of doing that?
Yeah. I bought a very rare thing called a bobbin, which is a Billingsgate [fish market] leather porter’s cap. It was very heavy, so I didn’t wear it all the time. But I have done that in the past. I did become a kind of hippie when I did my Glastonbury film, and I certainly reverted to my punk past when I did The Filth and the Fury.