It’s no secret how important a filmmaker Danny Boyle is. Ever since the cult classic Shallow Grave (1994), and his era-defining Trainspotting (1996), he has remained integral to cinema – granted there have been some clangers such as The Beach. His latest and highly anticipated project is the series Pistol based on the adventures of the Sex Pistols in their heyday. In saying that, it takes its premise from the autobiography Lonely Boy from guitarist Steve Jones. All looks good for a biopic of appeal for fans old (yours truly) and new, unfortunately it falls way short of expectations.
The trailer hypes up the Disney+ series, promising plenty of rebellious intrigue. However the finished work delivers it in boring chunks, missing the mark with one saving grace in the acting which is quite good – and admittedly this is something to be applauded. Maisie Williams is extremely impressive as the recently departed Pamela Rooke, aka Jordan (passed April this year). Without question, her scenes embody Punk, its attitude and its look. Alongside Anson Boon (Johnny Rotten), Louis Partridge (Sid Vicious) and Emma Appleton as Nancy Spungen, the performances are inch perfect, as is the music.
The series falls down as an overall exploration unfortunately, with a severely uneven pace, becoming a Rock And Roll Swindle (sic) of sorts. And here’s why: in the last number of years, audiences got musical cinematic adventures of exceptional quality, but not warts-and-all accounts. Instead, we got outings with artistic liberties in abundance. To give a prime example, hardcore fans of Queen found Bohemian Rhabsody problematic, even though both members Brian May and Roger Taylor had a lot of input. A key fact left out of Queen’s chronology was when the band went up against a Musician Union ban and played a concert in South Africa’s Sun City at a time when apartheid was at its height, making them public enemy #1. This was why their triumphant Live Aid show was so key to their return to success – a fact left out of the Bohemian Rhapsody movie. And that same sense of selective memory can be seen in the spiraling nature of Pistol.
In the past number of weeks, Sex Pistols’ frontman John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) has become outspoken about the Pistol series, as has its creator Boyle. Lydon claims he was excluded from the process, not allowed to see the script or know any details of the narrative. Danny Boyle, meanwhile, has revelled in the free publicity and controversy for Pistol created by Lydon’s notorious language towards him and his project. Reflecting on it after watching it through has left me curious. What harm would it have done? What aspects would he have objected to? Or, perhaps Lydon would simply have wanted input in the creative decisions and the overall look. For his faults, what is important to Lydon is the legacy and legend of the Sex Pistols, and when encountering anything that tells an untrue story or tries to rewrite history he will simply be up in arms.
My view on coming to a music biopic is: will it please the longtime fans of the subject? If it fails on that point, does it make for good viewing? Sadly, this series fails on both counts. Pistol is too smooth, not threatening or dangerous like Punk was. It lacks the anarchy which was the basis of it all, and tragically there are far more whimpers than roars of rebellion. If you visit (or revisit) Alex Cox’s classic Sid And Nancy, you get a grainy appeal, and a harrowing glimpse into the late-seventies UK drug and music culture that were far closer to the band’s live experience. To get the real story of the Sex Pistols and that whole era, highly recommended is Julian Temple’s documentary The Filth And The Fury (2000), which has contributions from all involved, including the late Malcolm McLaren. Both are far more authentic and of course historically correct into what happened between 1976 and 1978 when Punk exploded.
Disappointingly, Pistol is simply not what it should be. We get a missed opportunity to tell a story where fact is more interesting than fiction. The Sex Pistols recorded only one album – Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols, and they changed history with less than 40 minutes of music. But with the 6 episodes of Pistol, the negativity that the band and movement stood for does not come across as it should. Perhaps someone should allow John Lydon to tell the story or base one on his excellent autobiography Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs. Until then, Pistol will entertain some, while making the majority cringe.
Pistol is currently streaming on Disney+