I gather from interviews that writer-director Danny Boyle really loves the Sex Pistols. “It sounds a bit pretentious, obviously, but I was sort of destined to do this,” he said in a recent interview. “I knew I would have to [make a punk film] at some point.” Given this sense of mission, I’m not quite sure how to take Boyle’s six-episode FX/Hulu series, Pistol, about the short-lived but wildly influential band.
For starters, he relies heavily on Steve Jones’s 2017 memoir Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol. That means tons of material about how Steve Jones (Toby Wallace) was a sensitive fellow damaged by a wretched working-class childhood under the control of a bullying wanker of a father. And tons more about what appears to be Jones’s own assessment of himself as the mostly sane central figure in the band of often malevolent nutters.
There’s also tons about his supposedly on-again, off-again, hot and heavy, super-meaningful romance with pre-Pretenders Chrissie Hynde (Sydney Chandler). Boyle congratulates himself on how he and writer Craig Pearce finally give the women involved in the band’s turbulent odyssey their due, with unusually in-depth portraits of designer Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley), fashion icon Jordan née Pamela Rooke (Maisie Williams), chaos-catalylist Nancy Spungen (Emma Appleton), and especially Hynde. “There was a very quiet, inexorably ticking bomb, that she would arrive and eclipse all of them,” says Boyle. “Who knows how many other girls were frustrated by getting short shrift — even though punk was pretty good for allowing in women.”
So with all that high-mindedness about “redressing” the wrongs of the women in the orbit of the Sex Pistols, it’s amusing to report that Hynde offers a blunt corrective to Boyle’s portrait of her relationship with Steve Jones: “I only fucked him once, you know.”
It’s understandable that the once-brilliant John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten — long since gone down some strange mental path that’s brought him to explicit admiration for Queen Elizabeth and even an appearance on Judge Judy — tried but failed to get a court order to block the production by refusing to license the music. His comments on the Boyle series seem harsh but fair, questioning its “fairytale” rendering of the band’s history, and calling it a “middle-class fantasy.”
The series does seem surprisingly middlebrow, following the formula of the biopic, which is, in general, a contemptible genre that presents amazing, messy, and radical lives as following familiar, conventional narrative arcs, and wins filmmakers awards for doing it. In biopics about music legends, there are typically painful, literal-minded scenes meant to represent famous instances of creative inspiration. These haven’t changed much since the so-called golden age of Hollywood.
Following the cheesiest traditions, Pistol is constantly showing us bogus scenes of lyric writing and the invention of new names for band members in strictly formulaic terms that usually go: one wrong suggestion from one character, one suggestion of something better from another, and then they hit upon the right one, with somebody yelling the equivalent of, “That’s it!”
Sid Vicious, born John Simon Ritchie (Louis Partridge), gets his famous name in Pistol when he tells his childhood friend John Lydon/Johnny Rotten (Anson Boon) that his hamster’s name is Sid. Then he reaches into the cage, gets bitten, and says, “Sid’s vicious!”
Of course, there are some good things, too. The most exhilarating sequence in the film shows Jordan bicycling across town and taking a train to London to work at Westwood’s SEX boutique, gorgeously punked-out in a see-through shirt revealing her breasts, with her eyes looking out of bold horizontal swoops of black makeup, and her long, pale blonde hair pointing upward in a graceful wave like a troll doll’s. She looks incredible, and she’s unfazed by the shocked stares and hostile exclamations in her wake. For a few minutes, some sense of the liberating possibilities of punk are revived. Why not reject the whole ossified empire, all day every day? Why not manifest it in the way you dress, talk, move, sing, eat, design things, work, have sex, relate to systems of power, and so on? Why are we all so polite and careful and respectful?
There are also nice if unmemorable montages of hidebound 1970s England, including Queen Elizabeth celebrating her Silver Jubilee. There are enthusiastic performances from the young actors playing the Sex Pistols. There’s a certain amount of joy just in hearing the songs performed — “Anarchy in the UK,” “God Save the Queen,” “Bodies,” “No Fun,” Sid Vicious’s pounding, howling version of “My Way.” And it’d be hard not to get some emotional mileage out of that insane, dark tragi-comic Sex Pistols tour of Southwest America, and the grisly operatics of Sid and Nancy’s deadly flameout, and the band’s final bust-up.
But overall, the series is far too soft, too rote, too routine. If ever there was a glorious chance to do something formally radical, something stylistically eye-gouging and ear-tearing, something narratively rule-breaking, this was it — you’d never find better subject matter. But Danny Boyle just plods along, introducing Steve and his initial bandmates Paul Cook (Jacob Slater) and Glen Matlock (Christian Lees), then showing his first fateful encounters with Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), then it’s time to bring John Lydon into the mix, and blah blah blah.
McLaren is represented as a pixie-faced, curly topped spawn of Satan whose evil exploitation of the band he helped create ultimately spelled doom, while his consort Westwood is condemned as a cold leftist nag, always hectoring everyone about proper revolutionary attitudes. Even if it’s representing aspects of the truth, it’s not interesting — this wasn’t any band of angels overall, so it seems silly to introduce trite devils to blame everything on.
An odd pearl-clutching moralism is built into the series. Toward the end of Pistol, as Sid Vicious becomes a dominant figure in the band and obsesses about getting his hair sufficiently spiky, he echoes McLaren in saying that when it comes to the Sex Pistols, “the look is what matters”.
The scene telegraphs ominously that Sid’s dreadful display of shallowness marks the beginning of the end for the band. But why? All along, the look of the band, curated by Westwood and McLaren, was vitally important to its impact. The astounding self-presentation of punk rockers was central to their defiance of the whole established world that condemned young working-class people like themselves to a permanent state of “no future”. People got those Mohawks and tattered tees and safety-pinned leatherware and skin piercings and transformative makeup designs because looks matter. How middle-class-morality can you get — this stupid appearances vs. reality binary Pistol reverts to by the end! Oscar Wilde has got to be rolling in his grave, laughing at it.
Might as well obsess over how terrible it was that the Sex Pistols became an important band even though most of them weren’t trained or accomplished musicians, with Steve Jones and Sid Vicious hardly able to play their instruments, and Johnny Rotten singing off key…
Oh wait, Pistol does obsess over that in a completely conventional way, episode after episode, unable to let it go even though the band finds its own raging style and sounds tremendous. Johnny Rotten is shown to be tortured by his supposedly bad voice, and Steve Jones is deeply ashamed that he can’t play “properly,” constantly telling Chrissie Hynde how much more deserving she is of fame and fortune because she can “really” play and sing.
Boyle sets up the liberating, emboldening possibilities offered by the Sex Pistols phenomenon, it seems, just for the lugubrious pleasure of knocking them down again in the end. In a final melancholy and fantastical encounter with Steve Jones, Johnny Rotten says at least they’ll always have the memory of one gleeful, redemptive band performance:
[A] Christmas day benefit concert for the children of striking firemen in the city of Huddersfield. The quartet took to this live appearance with glee, dancing with the kids to disco hits of the day, handing out promotional goodies, smashing cake in each other’s faces, and then playing a short set.
It’s a very touching flashback to the Pistols supporting “working-class heroes” and their children, cutting out all the swearing so the kids won’t be disturbed in any way. But the series presents this as if the Sex Pistols did one good deed in a short, misbegotten career, which seems like exactly the wrong note to end on.
As I remember it, Sex Pistols–inspired punk was a marvel of benevolent possibility. I remember going to the local punk club as an undergraduate, a total misfit in my cluelessly prim, absurd little outfits, and having everyone else there be perfectly accepting in a way that can only be attributed to strongly held principles. I still remember punks as a model of tolerance in a grimly intolerant world. I think they deserve a better tribute than this one.
Try The Filth and the Fury (2000), Julien Temple’s rockumentary about the Sex Pistols. That’s a film with a fitting degree of affection for that scabrous and wonderful band.
Eileen Jones is a film critic at Jacobin and author of Filmsuck, USA. She also hosts a podcast called Filmsuck.
Featured image: Hulu
This review was first published on Jacobin.