Sex Pistols series "Pistol" is a dazed and amusing account of legendary punks
Louis Partridge (L) is bassist Sid Vicious, Anson Boon (C) is frontman Johnny Rotten and Toby Wallace (R) is guitarist Steve Jones in "Pistol," Danny Boyle's six-part miniseries on the rise, fall and aftermath of the Sex Pistols punk band.
A six-part TV miniseries starring Toby Wallace, Anson Boon, Louis Partridge, Jacob Slater, Christian Lees, Sydney Chandler, Talulah Riley, Maisie Williams, Emma Appleton, and Thomas Brodie-Sangster. Written by Craig Pearce and Ben Thompson, based on Steve Jones' "Lonely Boy: Tales From a Sex Pistol." Directed by Danny Boyle. Streaming on Disney+. STC
The Sex Pistols always had a certain comic ambivalence about them. With the exception of poor deluded Sid Vicious (RIP), they knew punk was more of an attitude than a revolution.
You can hear them hedging their bets in their songs: "Anarchy in the U.K." warns social mayhem "is coming sometime, maybe," which makes them rather uncertain doomsayers. "God Save the Queen" declares Britain's monarch to be "a moron" and "a potential H-bomb," yet cheerily adds "we love our Queen."
Still, there's no knocking the Pistols' seismic impact on music and pop culture. They influenced generations of bands — among them Nirvana, Green Day, Guns N' Roses and even the Rolling Stones — and shook up social norms, especially British ones, with their cynical wordplay, three-chord fury and general nose-thumbing disdain.
Which brings us to "Pistol," the new series streaming on Disney+. It's directed by Danny Boyle, who has long been fascinated with charismatic yobs, as witness his 1996 novel adaptation "Trainspotting" (and later sequel "T2"). In fact, "Pistol" is a bit like "Trainspotting" transposed to the 1970s punk era, with similar bad behaviour and substance abuse but more music.
The main difference here is that "Pistol" is meant to be a true account, dramatically staged and filtered through the dazed and amused recollections of Pistols guitarist Steve Jones, whose engaging 2017 autobiography "Lonely Boy: Tales From a Sex Pistol" was adapted by primary screenwriters Craig Pearce (who co-wrote Baz Luhrmann's upcoming "Elvis") and Ben Thompson.
The Sex Pistols were together for only about three years, less if you count the time Sid Vicious was pretending to be their bassist. They recorded and released just one studio album, "Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols" — but what an album it was! Yet they continue to be a fascination, 44 years after imploding during their farcical first U.S. tour in January, 1978. (Occasional reunions, with original bassist Glen Matlock subbing for the late Sid, help keep the flame alive.)
"Pistol" hits all the high notes of the time, or more accurately the discordant ones. There are faithful recreations of such infamous headline grabbers as the riotous Thames River cruise for a "God Save the Queen" promo, the "Filth and the Fury" naughtiness of the Bill Grundy teatime TV interview and the redneck-baiting insanity of the Pistols' U.S. flameout. Real news footage from the era establishes the suffocating bleakness and class consciousness of 1970s Britain and why the Pistols and other punks would be inclined to smash it.
Ground Zero for the series is the London hangout/clothing store SEX, run by future Pistols' manager Malcolm McLaren (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and his partner Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley). Shop employees include American ex-patriate and future Pretenders frontwoman Chrissie Hynde (Sydney Chandler), who befriends and beds Jones, and local scenester and model Pamela "Jordan" Rooke (Maisie Williams, "Game of Thrones"). It all rings true, even if Hynde wasn't as big a part of Jones' life as the series lets on (dramatic licence has been liberally taken).
Band personalities are more of a tussle, perhaps harder to accept at first if you're among the group's greying fans (I raise an elderly hand) and remember them differently. But the actors all gradually ease into their roles and their stage performances as Sex Pistols speak of natural talent plus serious prep work.
Toby Wallace makes for a genial Steve Jones, an abused and neglected kid whose early claim to fame was as an "Artful Dodger," knicking everything from a toy train set to the microphone David Bowie used for his Ziggy Stardust farewell concert — it still had Bowie's lipstick on it, and all. Having heard the Sex Pistols' rise and fall from earlier accounts by contrarian frontman Johnny Rotten (aka John Lydon) and maneuvering manager McLaren, it's a nice change to get the Sex Pistols story from an insider with a more generous perspective.
Jason Slater as drummer Paul Cook and Christian Lees as original bassist Glen Matlock are as much in the background of this punk circus as they've always appeared to be in real life.
Less convincing, at least at the start, are Anson Boon's Johnny Rotten and Louis Partridge's Sid Vicious, neither of whom immediately take the stage. Boon pulls off Rotten's wailing hunchback performing style and his reflexive anger well enough, although the effect of the illusion isn't immediate. Ditto for Louis Partridge's Sid Vicious (aka John Simon Ritchie), who seems far too much of a ponce and pretty boy to play damaged junkie Sid — although Emma Appleton's Nancy Spungen, Sid's equally ruined and doomed girlfriend, seems spot on.
Casting quibbles fade away as the series rattles on, including one grim chapter midway that explains where the abortion song "Bodies" came from, with new face Bianca Stephens playing the imperilled Pauline of the lyrics.
It makes for a harrowing watch, as does a later chapter revisiting the tragic end of Sid and Nancy. But the series also has many moments of sweet nuttiness, as when Sid gloomily predicts he'll be dead by age 21 (he was right) and Johnny responds with, "You want a cup of tea?" It's also a larf when the lads discover that the best hair lacquer for their spiked-up 'dos is Vicks VapoRub, which makes them all smell like they've just left a cough clinic. And who'd have guessed that the Pistols performance remembered most fondly by band members was a Christmas benefit show for the children of striking fire fighters?
The only thing the Pistols were really serious about was their music, despite all the guff you've heard about punks being anti-music. They meant it, man, even Sid — although it's hilarious watching Johnny and Steve explain to him that he at least has to try to learn how to play bass: "You can't be a Sex Pistol if you can't play!"
The main theme of "Pistol," on screen as in life, is a collision of accident and avarice. The Sex Pistols were rebels just past their teen years, kicking at pricks and strictures they didn't understand or accept and hoping to gain notoriety and cash by acting out in public. Mission accomplished, lads, then and now! 🌓
Two members of the real Sex Pistols: Johnny Rotten (L) and Steve Jones (R) at their final gig in January, 1978, at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco.