The Sex Pistols’ landmark album Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols was a flashpoint, the climax, according to some, of the year punk broke and even the very thing, according to others, that broke punk. On the spectrum of the big three ’70s punk bands, the Sex Pistols were a combustible center. The Ramones perfected the look and sound of that three-chord fury, setting both the attitude and the uniform. The Clash gave punk a brunt-force ideology that would give the movement depth and purpose. The Sex Pistols, meanwhile, exploded with both: It was a political art project (with too much internal politicking to construct a clear message) as well as a fashion-forward tour-de-force (which turned form into function and led to the band’s violent and tragic end).
Pistol, a lavish six-episode miniseries about the band directed by Oscar-winner Danny Boyle, is interested in all of this. Writer Craig Pearce, who penned a similar tale of rock ’n’ roll myth-making, the forthcoming Elvis, pits punk-rock excess against the musical and political integrity brought to the band by singer Johnny Rotten and guitarist Steve Jones (convincingly and endearingly played by Anson Boon and Toby Wallace, respectively).
Two factions stood in the way of making the Sex Pistols a lasting endeavor: former New York Dolls manager and fledgling artist Malcolm McLaren (a slippery Thomas Brodie-Sangster), who dreamed of making a band so grotesque it would reveal the hypocrisy of something or other, and the addition of Sid Vicious (Louis Partridge), whose “looks over competency” philosophy accelerated the group’s demise.
Like the real Pistols, the show is transcendent for a brief time, a raucous coming together of blunt politics and brash style. But over the last four or five episodes, it becomes an obnoxious and repetitive regurgitation. Pistol is, however, ridiculously watchable and easily digestible. Unmistakably the sentimental work of the T2 Trainspotting filmmaker (and not the Danny Boyle of the original Trainspotting), the director packs Pistol with punk flair and a whole lot of spit but remains skeptical of its nihilism. He connects with the style and politics but rarely finds a comfortable balance for them to coexist. It has the same awkward nostalgia, too, of HBO’s attempt to recreate this era, Vinyl (and the same goofy hate-watchability).
Based on Jones’ memoir, Lonely Boy: Tales From A Sex Pistol, the series
more or less follows the straight line for Jonesy. When we meet him, he’s stealing equipment from David Bowie’s band. He’s a “lazy sod,” one of the under-served British youths of the ’70s, escaping a sexually abusive stepfather, an uninterested mother, and a life with no future at SEX, the infamous London boutique founded by Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley) and McLaren. It’s here that Jonesy meets Chrissie Hynde (Sydney Chandler), his über-competent punk girlfriend that grows fond of his confidence and boyish attitude.
Unlike Alex Cox’s Sid & Nancy, which features actors well into their 30s, Pistol is compromised mostly of younger unknowns, save for an unrecognizable and underserved Maisie Williams, who portrays punk legend Jordan Mooney. The Pistols were kids, after all. Sid Vicious died of a heroin overdose at 21. That they’re so young gives the show its tension. It’s like an inverse of 24 Hour Party People: In that, an older manager, Tony Wilson, sought to create art and community. Here, the manager, McLaren, wants to burn it all down for his own enrichment.
The band has long had its reputation held hostage by McLaren, who took credit for the group in his “documentary” The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle. And the myth that he manufactured the Pistols and manipulated them into self-destruction for publicity never went away, inspiring the band and Swindle director Julien Temple to collaborate on a documentary rebuttal, The Filth And The Fury, which remains the best filmed document of the band’s history.
Pistol plays both sides. There’s plenty of McLaren slinking around, with the words “sexy young assassins” always on the tip of his forked tongue. He forces line-up changes, encourages destruction, and mismanages the band for his enrichment. But Boyle gives the band members the chance to look like artists who care, and Rotten does. Boon’s wide-eyed stare recalls Mr. Robot’s Rami Malek, but instead of anti-social detachment, Boon is hyper-engaged, imbuing a vulnerability and ferocity in the iconoclast. Rotten never gives the impression that he doesn’t care about what he’s doing—even if he uses his anger as a defensive mechanism. When the band plays on Christmas Day for a crowd of striking firemen and their kids, he considers them “working-class heroes” that he’s honored to entertain.
Unfortunately, Boon’s performance transcends the kitchen-sink plotting of Pearce’s scripts. Pistol fits in neatly with the writer’s postmodern epics; the doomed lovers and grand villains of Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge appear here as well, through McLaren and the tragedy of Sid and Nancy. But while Pearce’s operatics work for Luhrman, they’re at odds with Boyle’s punk project.
Each episode has a Wikipedia-like approach to plotting with the band moving from London troublemakers to notorious pop-music terrorists, burning down the system as record label after record label signs and then drops them. Like Boyle’s Steve Jobs, the show underlines every pivotal moment in the Pistols’ career, from Jonsey naming Johnny “Rotten” to their raucous appearance on Today to Sid rewriting and performing the Sinatra standard “My Way.” But the way Boyle and Pearce hammer home these moments will have anyone who grew up watching VH1 rolling their eyes. These punks rarely get to be people because they’re too busy foreshadowing their downfall or meeting Richard Branson with all the grace of a Saturday Night Live sketch. Frankly, these tropes have no business in our post-Walk Hard biopic landscape.
And Pistol can’t help but appear phony. The boxy 4:3 aspect ratio sits awkwardly next to spliced-in archival 16mm footage of England from the ’70s. All the canted angles in the world can’t hide how immaculately produced and manicured this show is. Nevertheless, the soft, grainy photography and neon lighting give the show a warmth, a coziness that makes it delightful to watch, which is the exact opposite thing anyone should be saying about a TV show about the bloody Sex Pistols.
A more generous read of this aesthetic is that Boyle is attempting to marry perception and reality—that through artifice, we can see the truth. But the script stumbles into forced conclusions and easy-to-understand lessons. For example, “Bodies” (episode three), named after one of the band’s best, most controversial songs, is mythically based on a super-fan named Pauline (Bianca Stephens), who, like in the song, escaped a mental institution, where attendants repeatedly raped her and forced her to undergo abortions. In Lonely Boy, Jones writes that Pauline “was a bit of a nut case and carried her abortion around in a bag.” While he admits that “it was weird,” he determined that she was “a good-looking bird who didn’t dress like a punk or anything” and remembers “fucking her down an alley off Wardour Street.”
Boyle and Pearce turn Jones’ aside into an entire episode arc, beginning with Pauline’s escape from the institution before coming to London to stalk Rotten, holding the bag and scaring everyone at SEX. When we last see Pauline, she’s entering a baptism by loogies at the Sex Pistols gig, free of the literal baggage of her trauma and ready to be saved by the music of the Sex Pistols—more or less confirming Lydon’s claim that “punk rock pulled her out of her cocoon.” She becomes a lesson for the lads about the power of punk. To steal a phrase from the song: “Fuck this, and fuck that.” (Women are frequent objects for lesson-making and explanation in Pistol. But none is more disappointing than Chrissie Hynde, the future Pretenders powerhouse, who who listens to Jones’ problems, encourages him, and complains that she doesn’t get the same opportunities.)
When the band plays, though, it suddenly all comes together. In episodes three and four, when the group is recording and tearing the stage apart, the show comes alive with electric performances and speedy plotting. There’s a certain magic in these faux Sex Pistols blazing through “Anarchy In The U.K.” The impersonation is both convincing and intoxicating—not to mention that simply every song on Never Mind The Bollocks is an outright banger, packing as much power today as it did in 1977. For all its faults, Pistol has a wonderful soundtrack to fall back on.
The Sex Pistols were the world’s most important band for approximately six months. And for a short time, Boyle’s Pistol burns bright, too. But, as the world learned in 1977, spending too much time with the Sex Pistols will have viewers yearning for a holiday in the sun.