Danny Boyle’s six-part history of the Sex Pistols won’t be for everyone, but it absolutely is for me. My first encounter with punk as a 12-year-old terrified me – I can still recall a current-affairs report in which some pogoing pubescent declared she wanted to die before she turned 21, and the nihilism shook me – but in a few years, I was swept up by its energy of defiance and general sense of rage at the world (I’ve mellowed slightly since, I swear).
I offer this purely by way of caveat. If it’s Hotel California you’re after, you might want to check in elsewhere. But if it’s a slice of grimy pop-cultural history that treats its subject and subjects with an even-handed mix of respect and revulsion, get your bondage pants on and start spitting.
Adapted by Australian screenwriter Craig Pearce (longtime Baz Luhrmann collaborator) from the autobiography of guitarist and founder (and, briefly, lead singer) Steve Jones, Pistol is a tragi-comedy without heroes but with an abundance of empathy.
Jones (played by Australian Toby Wallace) is a dyslexic, sexually abused, homeless kleptomaniac whose prospects in life run the gamut from prison to early grave. In Malcolm McLaren (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley) he finds a pair of substitute parents willing to give him a place to doss, clothes to wear and, above all, a glimmer of self-worth.
Westwood is guided in equal parts by altruism and a desire to topple the establishment; McLaren has an eye to the main chance – a Situationist artistic statement built on conflict and confrontation, using disenfranchised youth. It will flame brightly before burning out, and it may or may not consume its central players (it doesn’t much matter to him either way).
Anson Boon doesn’t look an awful lot like Johnny Rotten, the band’s lead snarler and chief lyricist, but he inhabits his persona brilliantly. Christian Lees breathes dignity and fifth-wheelism into Glen Matlock, the bassist allegedly kicked out because he liked the Beatles (though in this telling, it had more to do with his ability to read and question a contract), while Louis Partridge as Sid Vicious makes a late and tragic arrival on the scene and Paul Cook (Jacob Slater) just wants to get back to his apprenticeship.
Chrissie Hynde is a major character, a sometimes-lover and guitar teacher to Jones and a gifted musician who finds that punk’s interest in upending the established order doesn’t extend to putting a woman in the band. Sydney Chandler is great in the role; like all the other actors, she plays and sings for real.
Pistol’s world is one of squats and enormous piles of rubbish, of abandoned buildings used as rehearsal rooms, of idiotic brawls, rampant egos and heroin-fuelled death wishes. It isn’t glamorous, despite the central role played by Westwood and McLaren’s fashion boutique Sex (later Seditionaries) in proceedings. But it’s convincingly detailed by Boyle, who infuses it with a sense of urgency and anger at the British class system that should make the movement as a whole explicable even to those who weren’t convinced at the time.
The Sex Pistols’ story has been told before, of course – in Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy, and in the documentary The Filth and the Fury and the genre-defying The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle, both directed by Julian Temple (who crops up as a minor character here) – and given the conflicting attempts of McLaren and Rotten to claim the central role in their creation story, the notion of truth is slippery.
But while this show’s Jones can’t read or write, he comes across as a far more reliable narrator than his predecessors. This Pistol aims straight and makes a bloody mess of things, in the most exhilarating way imaginable.
All six episodes of Pistol are on Disney+ from May 31.
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