TIt felt as if the whole world had ended for many young working class people living in 1970s Britain. Beaten down by a global recession, spiking inflation, and a backlash to ’60s progressivism that would soon lead to 18 years of Conservative rule in their country, many justifiably feared they could look forward to nothing more than a lifelong struggle for survival. In other words, as Johnny Rotten taunted in the Sex Pistols’ Silver-Jubilee-hijacking 1977 single “God Save the Queen”: no future.
This bleak outlook would surely resonate with kids coming of age now, as punk’s apocalyptic imagery bleeds into a reality warped by climate change, gun violence, and COVID-19. Which is reason enough for TV’s Great Docudrama Boom of 2022 to revisit the Sex Pistols, as director Danny Boyle has done in FX’s Pistol. Streaming May 31, exclusively on the network’s Hulu hub, the six-part series traces the brief rise and rapid combustion of a band that only released one studio album but permanently altered music, media, and youth culture. It’s a genuine but uneven effort, with some strong acting and character development counteracting the awkwardness inherent in any on-screen depiction of the songwriting and image creation process. What is the best? Pistol a disappointment, ultimately, is the way its narrative remains hermetically sealed in ’70s Britain despite so many opportunities to draw parallels to the global cataclysms of today.
Toby Wallace portrays Steve Jones; Louis Partridge plays Sid Vicious. Anson Boon is John Lyndon. Jacob Slater portrays Paul Cook in “Pistol”.
Based on co-founder, guitarist, and would-be frontman Steve Jones’ memoir Lonely Boy: Stories from a Sex PistolOpening with a Heist, the show is titled. Toby Wallace, a teenage Steve, steals a lipstick-smeared microphone from the 1973 concert where David Bowie was killed. Then he races with the police through London at night. Malcolm McLaren is his manager, played with impish flair by The Queen’s Gambit standout Thomas Brodie-Sangster) immediately realizes, Jonesy—irreparably damaged by an indifferent school system, a punitive state, and a broken home—is the perfect avatar for his cohort. “I’m creating a revolution,” announces Malcolm, a self-styled impresario about a decade Steve’s senior who operates a fetish-themed boutique called SEX with his fashion-designer wife, Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley). “I don’t want musicians, I want saboteurs!”
And that’s precisely what he gets, after Steve chokes onstage and Malcolm recruits a different singer. John Lydon, rechristened Rotten Anson Boon plays the role of Anson Boon, who is responsible for his poor state of teeth.The Deposed) as a grim, cranky, twitchy but brilliant kid with his heart in the right place and an Irish outsider’s keen understanding of the UK’s various political hypocrisies. He and Steve’s power struggles, as well as Malcolm (a middle-class ideologue, who propagates leftist revolutionary theories but still wants to control the Pistols), become the main conflict. (The show’s chronological structure comes as a relief, now that so many dramas insist on needlessly messing around with multiple timelines. But it also means that John doesn’t enter the mix until episode 2, which makes for a relatively weak premiere.)
Thomas Brodie–Sangster portrays Malcolm McLaren; Talulah Riley portrays Vivienne Westwood, in ‘Pistol.
If Jonesy is punk’s wounded heart and John its exacting brain, then Sid Vicious (Louis Partridge) is its ravenous, masochistic, infantile id. Sid (Christian Lees) is a late replacement for Glen Matlock, a terminally-normal, highly-talented bassist. He comes across as not only non-musician but also completely incapable of becoming one. He looks fantastic on stage, with his vacant snorting and then cutting through his flesh to the point that blood runs down his naked torso. Doc Martens’ walking death drive, he develops a dependency on Nancy Spungen (Emma Appleton), a New Yorker who imports heroin from the scene.
Pistol treats Nancy’s notorious death at the Hotel Chelsea in October 1978, months after the Pistols’ onstage implosion and allegedly at the hands of Sid, with essentially the same woozy, druggy ambiguity as the 1986 biopic Sid & Nancy. Boyle and Craig Pearce demonstrate more empathy to her than male storytellers, without resorting in any way to a female redemption plot that has become an old docudrama trope. She comes off as an annoying, destructive, manipulative person, but one who was in no less pain than any of punk’s lost boys.
Louis Partridge portrays Sid Vicious. Anson Boon plays John Lyndon. Toby Wallace is Steve Jones.
This show is certainly more focused than many dramatizations of UK pop on giving women their due. Beyond Nancy and Vivienne, who’s rightly portrayed as the real visionary in her marriage, we meet real-life SEX stalwarts Jordan (Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams, who sparkles in one episode’s glorious cold open but is otherwise underutilized) and Helen of Troy (Francesca Mills). As the talented, self-possessed Chrissie Hynde, who really did work at the store in the mid-’70s, Sydney Chandler gives Steve both a love interest he’ll never deserve and a musical mentor whose skill he’ll never match. And in the series’ only legitimately bold episode, themed around the Pistols’ much-debated “Bodies,” Bianca Stephens humanizes the track’s protagonist Pauline, a mentally ill woman who “just had an abortion.” More than a statement on reproductive rights, which would’ve been ill-suited to the story, the episode—and the series more generally—captures how outcasts of all varieties found a home in punk.
From the standpoint of history and storytelling, what Pearce does well is his characters. They were distinctive people with complex relationships and ideologies. Contrasts between Malcolm and Vivienne’s art-school ideals and the band’s working-class rage, or between John’s supportive parents and Steve’s terrible ones, are sharply drawn. Pearce is honest in his exploration of the social and political underpinnings to punk. Pistol isn’t just youthsploitation. Boyle has the same gritty-dreamy style he used to bring to TrainspottingHe is known for his musical flair and ability to capture people in motion. While most of the performances are solid, Boon’s Johnny Rotten alone is reason enough to watch.
The dialogue can be clunky, as though lifted from a third-rate Pistols biography or ripped from any other on-screen fictionalization of a famous band’s formation. There’s too much starting of things better left suggested, from the meaning of song lyrics to Vivienne’s resolution to “turn the male gaze back on itself.” At the same time, esoteric, punk-adjacent concepts (or concepts that have become esoteric over the past half-century) like Situationism are mentioned without being contextualized. In the final episode, Wikipedia Syndrome is at work. The episodes jump from one notorious incident to the next with little in the way or synthesis.
Maisie Williams as Jordan in ‘Pistol’
As with too many other docudramas Pistol doesn’t seem to know what it’s trying to say, or why. Just because a story is true, or largely true, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s worth adapting as fiction—especially when its subjects are a bAnd and a movement that have already been profiled and analyzed so extensively. Many of the real spectacles recreated here have long been available to watch in Julien Temple’s films The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle and The Fury and the Filth You can also find other punk-docs on YouTube. Sid, Nancy, and their collective lives have been cultural memes for much more time than they’ve lived. Nearly everyone, Lydon included, has published his or her memoirs. And to the extent that Pearce has a take on the Pistols—that Lydon was the real hero and McLaren the villain—it isn’t exactly a novel one.
This isn’t an easy story to tell. It was only a brief existence of the Sex Pistols. Steve wasn’t functionally literate, and Sid certainly was not a top student. Yet, in part because they mainstreamed McLaren and Westwood’s incendiary theory as well as Lydon’s DIY radicalism, the band has inspired some of the wildest, most ambitious, and voluminous books of cultural criticism ever written, from Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces You can find more information here England’s Dreaming Jon Savage. They changed how many people thought, lived and navigated the era of despair and desperation. They did not trace their legacy to the post-apocalyptic future. Pistol Provides little more than an excellent reenactment.
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