You think you know the Sex Pistols. This new TV show tries to deliver a corrective
It’s been 44 years since the Sex Pistols broke up and only a couple more since they played their first gig, having produced only one actual album in their lifetime. And yet they seem very much with us; the best of their music continues to sound massively huge, outside of time and trend.
The 2016 memoir of guitarist Steve Jones, “Lonely Boy,” has been adapted into “Pistol,” a miniseries directed by Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting,” et al.) and written by Baz Luhrmann’s go-to scenarist, Craig Pearce. The singular form of the title tells us that the series, premiering Tuesday on FX on Hulu, is not the story of the band so much as of a particular member — a bias, or angle, quickly apparent from what’s onscreen. Even John Lydon, a.k.a. Johnny Rotten, who for many is the Sex Pistol, takes a bit of a back seat. Inevitably, there is an episode titled “Nancy and Sid” — that’s bass player Sid Vicious — because a movie called “Sid and Nancy,” which nailed the Pistols’ legacy to its tragic last act rather than its triumphant first, practically demands it.
Pistolologists will notice omissions and revisions, but the series hits the big factual points. (If you regard well-documented 40-something-year-old history as a spoiler, you might want to skip down a few paragraphs.) Steve Jones (Toby Wallace), then nominally a singer, drummer Paul Cook (Jacob Slater) and bassist Glen Matlock (Christian Lees), along with footnote guitarist Wally Nightingale (Dylan Llewellyn), have a band of no visible success or audible aptitude called the Swankers. A working-class kid with a penchant for sometimes spectacular thievery, Jones has been hanging out at Sex, a cutting-edge clothing store run by designer Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley, in an especially good rendering of a someone seriously at work) and her boyfriend, Malcolm McLaren (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), a semi-pompous cultural provocateur with a foot in rock ’n’ roll. After some hectoring from Jones, McLaren agrees to manage his band.
“You’re a product of state oppression, aren’t you?” McLaren asks him, rhetorically. “Ruffians like you excite me. … Viv and I want to create a revolution inspired by the raw authenticity of forgotten kids like you.”
Before he became Johnny Rotten, John Lydon used to help his father dig out London cesspools.
Nightingale is dismissed and McLaren moves Jones to guitar, an instrument he cannot yet play, which makes room for John Lydon (Anson Boon), who famously auditions singing over Alice Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen” on the Sex jukebox. Thus, with Lydon renamed Johnny Rotten, are the Sex Pistols born; they write songs, play gigs, become a national scandal. Matlock, who likes the Beatles too much, is canned and replaced by Lydon’s friend John Simon Ritchie (Louis Partridge), already rechristened Sid Vicious; Sid can’t play, but everyone agrees he has the look. The band tours America, routed mostly through small Southern markets to guarantee maximum conflict and controversy. After playing San Francisco, the one appropriate gig, they break up, Lydon famously asking the crowd, “Do you ever feel you’ve been cheated?” In New York, Sid and American girlfriend Nancy Spungen (Emma Appleton) go messily into their good nights, creating an unfortunate legend.
Given the earlier work of the director and writer, it’s not surprising that, notwithstanding cutaways to news clips establishing England as a society in collapse, “Pistol” is a bit of a romantic fantasy, soft- rather than hard-edged. Pearce and Boyle (who squeezed a few seconds of “God Save the Queen” into the opening ceremonies for the 2012 London Summer Olympics) are of an age to have experienced these changes as they were happening, and “Pistol” is made with obvious love and affection for the time, the music and the whole notion of punk. The horrible stuff is not pictured as being as awful as it must have been; the sweet stuff feels as sweet as it might have been, as when a caring Lydon asks an upset Sid whether he’d like a cup of tea. (Boyle, of course, made his reputation on a comedy about heroin addicts.)
The alternative music scenes of the late ’70s included a sprinkling of authentically screwed-up types and many more musicians and fans who were playing a role, part of which entailed trying to prove you weren’t playing a role. They were kids, too, trying on costumes, philosophies, ways of walking and talking. (Boyle casts close to his subjects’ ages.) Though “Pistol” doesn’t paint a complete picture of the motley community the Pistols inspired and belonged to, it does a fair job of suggesting it, especially when the subjects are just hanging out in unprepossessing pubs with their beer and cigarettes. Informed viewers will recognize fashion warriors Jordan (Maisie Williams, who has a substantial part) and Soo Catwoman (Iris Law); Siouxsie Sioux (Beth Dillon) in transition from fan to frontwoman; pre-Generation X Billy Idol (Zachary Goldman); house filmmaker Julien Temple (Lorne MacFadyen) and graphics guy Jamie Reid (Alexander Arnold).
“Pistol” is sometimes silly, either by intention or because this sort of biopictorial mission is always going to produce something at least a little silly. The director intercuts the action with snippets of contemporary movies and television and advertisements. Every shot seems taken from a different angle. Boyle cants the camera, as on TV’s “Batman,” plays tricks with mirrors, uses slow motion and step frames. It’s all patched together rather like a documentary, without presenting itself as one. And by framing it in the standard aspect ratio — like old movies and TV shows — Boyle makes “Pistol” feel at once historical and whimsical, present and distant. It’s like something out of a storybook.
The tale of the Pistols is often framed as a tussle between Lydon and McLaren (not least by Lydon and McLaren). Did McLaren create Johnny Rotten, chasing his dream of a band of “sexy young assassins,” or did he merely take credit for Lydon’s native genius? Was it a matter of marketing or music? (Both, surely, with the emphasis on the music.) It’s a war of avant-garde intellectuals. But Jones offers a third, more conventional angle, a good old garage-to-glory tale of rock ‘n’ roll. (Cook and Matlock are supporting characters in this telling.) Alongside Lydon, he’s the person most responsible for the sound of the band and, by extension, for the many bands that built on that sound.
As played by Wallace, Jones comes off as rather soft and cuddly, a basically sweet, sensitive person saddled with childhood trauma — recall that his memoir is titled “Lonely Boy” — insecurity and learning difficulties. (“He’s very damaged,” says Westwood, “and that’s good.” “Yes,” McLaren agrees. “Makes his mind work in a very original way.”) He is smiling as often as not, whereas Boon’s Lydon/Rotten is largely a thing of scowls and stares; any scene where he relaxes even a little comes as a relief.
As far as I can tell, the relationship between Jones and future rock superstar Chrissie Hynde (played by Sydney Chandler), here a simple retail clerk at Sex — they did have one — has been plumped up to give Jones a quasi-romantic subplot and to let us glimpse the deeper side he’ll show to no one else. The Hynde storyline, which includes her messing around with songs on an acoustic guitar, runs as a kind of descant against the personal and professional noise of the Pistols.
Although there is a certain karaoke quality to the re-created live performances — Boon is tasked with playing perhaps the most charismatic performer in punk rock, a fool’s errand, as a glimpse of the actual band attests — “Pistol” gets the energy of the music and the crowds, and the look of the kids and the venues, right. Tapes of early, messy rehearsals, issued now and then across the years, have been closely studied as well.
The Sex Pistols were born to blow up; did anyone really expect a follow-up to “Never Mind the Bollocks”? (The “Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle” soundtrack does not count.) It’s hard even to imagine. Lydon went straight into post-punk, forming Public Image Ltd, which, with shifting members, has served him well over the years; eventually he grew into a beloved media figure, always good for a crack or a quote. Sid checked out, of course. Jones and Cook formed the Professionals, with Jones back on vocals. He got into drugs, cleaned up, became a disc jockey — his “Jonesy’s Jukebox” has been around on various platforms since 2004 — and put out the memoir that became “Pistol.”
In later years, lured by big money, the band occasionally reunited — with that Beatlemaniac Glen Matlock back on bass — for international tours of major markets, playing the old songs for more people in a night than might have seen them in the whole of the 1970s. A live album, “Filthy Lucre,” was issued.
Naturally, they broke up again.
When: Anytime, starting Tuesday, May 31
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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