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Perhaps it’s understandable that biopics of singularly influential artists so rarely live up to the creative brio of their subjects. After all, it’d be a challenge for any work of art to recreate the lightning-in-a-bottle impact of the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks, even one whose raison d’être is primarily explaining how and why Never Mind the Bollocks came to exist.
FX’s six-episode miniseries Pistol does try valiantly to capture some of the band’s spirit in its frenetic, freewheeling style, courtesy of director Danny Boyle. But these efforts are in service of a narrative that, though often compelling, feels too well-trod to be revelatory. Far from the shock to the system that the band intended their music to be, Pistol feels like a cover album of tunes we already know by heart.
Airdate: Tuesday, May 31 (Hulu)
Cast: Toby Wallace, Jacob Slater, Anson Boon, Louis Partridge, Sydney Chandler, Christian Lees, Talulah Riley, Maisie Williams, Emma Appleton, Thomas Brodie-Sangster
Creator: Craig Pearce
Director: Danny Boyle
The opening minutes of the series establish 1970s Britain as the best of times and the worst of times through a smattering of clips from the era: sitcoms and David Bowie at the Odeon, violent uprisings and Queen Elizabeth II. Existing somewhere inside that roiling mess is a scrappy little band that, within the space of about five years, will evolve into the Sex Pistols, take the world by storm and then implode in spectacularly public fashion. The general shape of their arc will feel familiar regardless of a viewer’s knowledge of this specific band, because it’s one that has been echoed in countless other rock biopics before it.
Pistol does do better than some in breathing a bit of life into that formula, first and foremost through a pair of exceptional performances. Frontman Johnny Rotten doesn’t fully enter the picture until episode two, but when he auditions for the band with a feral rendition of Alice Cooper’s “Eighteen,” it feels like a star-is-born moment not just for John but for Anson Boon, the intense 22-year-old playing him. Guitarist and founder Steve Jones (played with wounded, boyish bravado by Toby Wallace) may be the show’s protagonist — not least because Pistol creator Craig Pearce draws mainly from Jones’ memoir, Lonely Boy — but Boon’s John is its soul.
And if John is its soul, Malcolm McLaren is its calculating brain. As played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster, he’s a Svengali so relentlessly charming that he turns manipulation into an art form unto itself. The push-pull between the trio makes up Pistol‘s emotional core, and becomes our vantage point into the whole British punk scene.
Besides the other band members — which include drummer Paul Cook (Jacob Slater), bassist Glen Matlock (Christian Lees) and Glen’s eventual replacement as bassist, the notoriously self-destructive Sid Vicious (Louis Partridge) — the community includes a rotating cast of musicians, artists, models and creatives, even the least narratively relevant of whom will turn out to be famous enough to have their own Wikipedia pages. So overstuffed is this cast that Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones), one of Pistol‘s more recognizable young actors, has little to do but sit around looking untouchably cool as Jordan, one of the style icons of the punk movement.
The chaotic party atmosphere of the culture is reflected in Boyle’s kitchen-sink approach. Employing a 4:3 ratio reminiscent of TV screens of the era, Pistol switches between a soft-focus look and a grittier one, cuts in footage of the real Pistols and news reports from the era, sets his camera at odd angles and edits at a frantic pace. It’s all soundtracked not just by the Pistols but by the (surely expensive) likes of David Bowie, Pink Floyd and The Who. Self-conscious though it can feel, the showiness lends the series a playful sense of humor. Just as usefully, it helps distract from the script’s tendency to fall back on tropes so obvious they’re occasionally called out by the characters themselves — as when Johnny dismisses Sid’s tragically accurate prediction that he won’t live past 21 as a “stupid cliché.”
Amid the frenzy, the actual characters — particularly the supporting ones, many of them female — can get a bit lost. Future Pretenders founder Chrissie Hynde (Sydney Chandler) and fashion icon Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley) technically get their own storylines about moving forward in their own careers. But with too little space to do them justice, their arcs feel half-formed, and the characters end up mainly defined by their relationships to the men around them.
At least they fare better than Nancy Spungen (Emma Appleton), portrayed as an object of irritation, disgust and eventually pity, but never as a character worth getting to know on her own terms. Or Pauline (Bianca Stephens), who’s put through every sort of abuse and humiliation in episode three — all so she can inspire the song “Bodies” before disappearing from the series entirely.
Introspection isn’t Pistol‘s strong suit. As much time as its characters spend talking about what they want the Sex Pistols to mean, the series spends little time considering what the band, or their story, ultimately wound up meaning. One of its most intriguing throughlines is the conflict between the “raw authenticity” of these working-class blokes and their calculated branding as such, which takes priority even over the music itself. Sid, by his own acknowledgment an inept musician, shrugs to John that “No one cares what you sound like. It’s what you look like that matters.” His lasting fame in real life would seem to bear that out.
But how real can someone be when they’re performing realness? How meaningful is a controversy if it’s being orchestrated on purpose? What matters more, who these men are or what they can symbolize? They’re questions that should feel especially pertinent in today’s tumultuous, social media-addicted times, but the series doesn’t seem particularly capable of answering them, or especially interested in connecting them to our present. It’ll settle for delivering established facts with entertaining swagger, and it’s successful enough in those aims to make for a breezy watch. But Pistol is too busy admiring the youthful rebellion of the past to recognize that, in doing so, it’s become the very thing its subjects once sneered at: a safe, mainstream crowd-pleaser.
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