'Pistol' Is Over-the-Top, Just Like the Sex Pistols Were

Directed by Danny Boyle

Starring Toby Wallace, Anson Boon, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Sydney Chandler, Maisie Williams, Christian Lees, Emma Appleton, Louis Partridge

BY Alex HudsonPublished Jun 1, 2022

What is punk rock? More than a musical genre or a fashion movement, punk often boils down to a contrarian urge to do the exact opposite of what's expected. Once upon a time, Sex Pistols singer Johnny Rotten stuck it to the establishment by mocking the monarchy; flash forward a few decades and he was wearing a MAGA shirt and vouching for Trump. It's not about what's right; it's just about making people angry.

That amorality is at the heart of Pistol, Danny Boyle's miniseries based on guitarist Steve Jones's 2016 memoir Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol. It tells the story of the band's meteoric rise and precipitous fall — all of which took place over the course of just two and a half years in the mid-late '70s.

At their essence, the Sex Pistols were a marketing stunt — mannequins created by manager Malcolm McLaren as an exercise in brand synergy with his girlfriend Vivienne Westwood's London clothing boutique SEX. Played by Love Actually kid Thomas Brodie-Sangster, McLaren assembles a band for the specific purpose of being provocative, which is how he ends up with a singer who can't sing (Johnny Rotten, played by Anson Boon) and a guitarist who learns as he goes (Steve Jones, played by Toby Wallace). The only half-decent musician, bassist Glen Matlock (Christian Lees), is kicked out because of his haircut and replaced by Sid Vicious (Louis Partridge), who can't play a note and is barely interested in learning. They rebel against society by, ironically, embodying some of its worst traits — like their edgelord habit of wearing swastika armbands.

The best parts of Pistol highlight the pretension and contradictions at the heart of the band, whose rebellious bravado barely masks their paper-thin egos. Over the course of these six episodes, many of the fans who embrace the Sex Pistols aren't so much counterculture rebels as they are scenesters hopping onto the latest trend. Chrissie Hynde (Sydney Chandler), depicted here shortly before forming the Pretenders, essentially acts as the show's moral centre, calling out some of the band's personal and musical failings.

It's almost an accident, then, that the Sex Pistols end up being pretty good. As is cinematic tradition, the actors are a little too glamorous for the young dirtbags they are portraying — Boon in particular has absolutely glass-cutting cheekbones, making his Johnny Rotten more hunky than snotty — but they apparently learned to play instruments for the role, and they do a great job fumbling their way through the band's catchy, cathartic tunes. 

Pistol does well when focusing on music and public outrage; it fumbles when dealing with the more salacious and depraved moments of the band's legacy. A disturbing subplot about Pauline (Bianca Stephens) from the song "Bodies" gawks at abuse and mental illness, and Nancy Spungen (Emma Appleton) is a slapstick Tim Burton character with a badly botched American accent.

It's tough to buy into everything that Pistol portrays — like the clumsily scripted conversation about Johnny Rotten's "vicious" hamster named Sid, or the way-too-easy way drummer Paul Cook (Jacob Slater) turns a reggae groove into "Anarchy in the U.K." Chandler sings Hynde's proto-Pretenders songs in a very modern-sounding cursive style (the so-called "indie girl singer"). Pistol sometimes brings to mind the 2007 biopic parody Walk Hard in the way it neatly slots bits of the band's mythology into a tidy narrative.

But for the most part, Pistol is a fun piece of punk provocation. Given that the band were a fanciful, artificial product from the very beginning, why should their TV show be any different?

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