Pistol review – Danny Boyle’s wonky Sex Pistols show is like Punk: the Panto!

Johnny Rotten is the Artful Dodger crossed with an animated rodent in Boyle’s frustrating series that feels so cartoonish it falls totally flat

The Sex Pistols lasted for three years, and it’s fair to say that a lot happened to them in that brief, blinding flash of late 1970s chaos. Strange, then, that Pistol (Disney+) ends up feeling too fast and too loose. Danny Boyle directs this frenetic yet baggy six-part dramatisation of the Sex Pistols story, largely told through the eyes of guitarist Steve Jones. It is adapted by Baz Luhrmann favourite Craig Pearce, from Jones’s memoir, Lonely Boy, which explains the Jones-heavy perspective. The problem with this is that it gives the story a wonky, skewed focus and a frustrating sense of delayed gratification.

The first episode is all about Jonesy (Toby Wallace), as Jones is known in the series, and his terrible, traumatic childhood and life as a young thief. “Ruffians like you excite me,” purrs a predatory Malcolm McLaren (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), when Jonesy is caught trying to steal from his and Vivienne Westwood’s shop, Sex. Westwood’s character is wheeled out to explain things, while McLaren sloganeers. He speaks in statements such as “You’re a product of state oppression,” urging the band to “tear into each other like the seditionary sewer rats that you are”. When Johnny Rotten finally appears and spends an episode or two trying to write lyrics, he talks in scraps of what will become lines from their handful of songs. It’s Pistols: the panto.

It takes an episode to introduce Rotten, and when he does turn up, it’s with a flourish. The camera stalks up the stairs to his bedsit, hovers at his feet and eventually whips up to meet that John Lydon stare. Anson Boon plays him with conviction, a snotty cross between the Artful Dodger, the Child Catcher and an animated rodent. Lydon has been against Pistol since its inception, with his old bandmates taking him to court to argue that they were entitled to use the band’s music in it. They won. When the trailer came out, Lydon called it “a middle-class fantasy”. “Disney have stolen the past and created a fairytale, which bears little resemblance to the truth,” he said.

For a series that is all about the power of image, being rejected by Lydon must be the ultimate publicity coup. But young Rotten doesn’t come out of this badly: it’s just that he is a cartoon character. Another episode decides to hang itself around the inspiration for the song Bodies, as a fan stalks Rotten with a bag full of horrible secrets. It is a gruesomely fascinating story, but given that there are only six episodes to lay out the entirety of the Pistols’ birth and burnout, it feels odd to give it so much space. Similarly, there is a lot of time given to a romance between Chrissie Hynde (a very good Sydney Chandler) and Jonesy, and Hynde’s frustrations at the boys who are given the chance to be rock stars while she has to contend with “big steaming piles of sexism”. Jonesy, meanwhile, is fighting his own demons. “I screw a lotta birds and I act tough,” he says, after bottling an early stint as frontman. “But when I’m up there, I’ve got nowhere left to hide.”

Asks too much of us … Pistol.
Asks too much of us … Toby Wallace as Steve Jones and Sydney Chandler as Chrissie Hynde in Pistol. Photograph: Disney+/Rebecca Brenneman/FX

It is a big ask of the audience, to throw out equal parts sentimentality and nihilism, and expect it to sit smoothly. After meandering around the early days of the band, the show careers towards the inevitable implosion: Bill Grundy, the US, drugs, Sid Vicious (Louis Partridge) joining the band and flaming out tragically. I thought of Lydon talking about his friend Sid in Julien Temple’s 2000 documentary The Filth and the Fury. “He just died, for fuck’s sake,” Lydon says to Temple, his voice collapsing with emotion. “They just turned it into making money... Poor sod.”

Pistol fell flat for me, but there are two things that might make it worth a punt. The actors had to learn how to play their instruments, and the live performance scenes give a desperately needed shot of energy. It sounds great, and hints at how thrilling it must have been to be in the room. A scene of the band’s gig at Chelmsford prison, in 1976, is genuinely tense, then strangely joyful.

The other is Maisie Williams as the late Jordan, who gets the best scene in the series, when she struts through her seaside home town wearing nothing but clear PVC, to the horror of the stuffy commuters and passersby. “Provocateuring does make one quite hungry,” she drawls. Her character is what could have been. She shows what punk did, rather than telling it. There’s a lot of ambition in Pistol, a lot of provocateuring, but it doesn’t spark.


Rebecca Nicholson

The GuardianTramp

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