Projects like “Pistol” exist under the tension of what audiences expect and what they never realized they needed to know about their subject matter – in this case, The Sex Pistols. A space like this was supposed to give series creator and writer Craig Pierce and director Danny Boyle ample space to take a famous rock ‘n’ roll story and create something unexpected and meaningful.
To some extent, the FX on Hulu series achieves this, if only through its performance rather than the band’s history. There’s fitting in that, given that the band’s legend has more to do with what it stands for than its connection to music. However, its symbol was powerful enough to define the type of music that was alive and pulsing before the existence of the Sex Pistols and continued 45 years after its biggest hit, “God Save the Queen,” which parodied Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee celebration.
The Queen’s popularity remains high even now, as is the iconic cover of Jimmy Reed’s single Sex Pistols. Generations later, that image personified rebellion and anarchy and adorned millions of T-shirts and bedroom wall posters, even those of kids who might never have heard of the band’s only album.
Telling Steve Jones of History… enables Danny Boyle to dance between personal nostalgia and generally shared memory.
But the “pistol” doesn’t seem designed for the generations born too late to experience the ’70s punk rock scene first or even second-hand, as was the case for most Generation X. A performance or ritual to inculcate one of rock’s most famous and short-lived chaotic storms with a miserable, friable spirit.
The way Boyle and Pearce perceive “Pistol” ensures that the idea doesn’t conflict with the explosion of resonant guitars, the screeching, phlegm that defines the sex pistols, and the snatching and repacking of pre-culture for Hot Topic shoppers.
RELATED: ‘Pam and Tommy’ Is The Greatest And Biggest Love Story Ever Told About An Unauthorized Celebrity Sex Tape
Conversely, the limited series humanizes the myth by presenting the band’s story from the point of view of guitarist Steve Jones, whose memoir “Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol” inspires Pierce’s scenarios.
Jones’ view of history, embodied in Toby Wallace’s introspective performance, enables Boyle to dance between personal nostalgia and generally shared memory. This also allows Pierce to explore the paradoxical beginnings of the confrontational force that eventually became the band, as Jones found music and performance as a way to disappear from the life he hated.
We meet him in the midst of Bowie’s cult and stumble with him when he bumps into the lives of Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley) and Malcolm McClaren (the racy Thomas Brody-Sangster). The first wants to revolutionize Britain’s stagnant art scene through confrontational style. McLaren is a brand-aware surfer who is constantly looking for a way or someone to make their profile bigger.
pistol (Mia Mizuno/FX)
Jones has a squad but hasn’t mastered the stage presence, which fits McLaren’s purposes nicely. The final director sees Jones and his bandmates Paul Cook (Jacob Slater) and Glen Matlock (Christian Liss) as mud that can be molded into a salable product. He’s right, and that has a cost, too.
As the book’s title suggests, Wallace Jones is endowed with a passionate spirit and sensitivity that clouds his bravery once he learns how to properly hammer Hell from his guitar and embrace the energy of the sick alley cat that Johnny Rotten eventually brings to the band, delivered with chilling precision by Anson Boone. Boon is a revealing whirlpool from the moment he appears on screen, it’s all sarcasm and sarcasm, but even in the most unrefined character, he reveals an intellectual acuity in his character.
John Lydon, the man behind the moniker Rotten Theatre, was reportedly not happy with the way it was portrayed in Jones’ memoir. He sued Jones and Cook to prevent the band’s music from being used in the series and losing it. That’s one worth wondering if only Lydon can appreciate the way Boon’s work sparks the story.
The best sequences are replays of familiar history. Content we know so little about…lacks focus and energy.
In some schools of thought, all the Revolver really has to do is get Lydon’s character along with his one-time manager and all-time opponent McLaren. Previous stories place both men in prominence, which is understandable given their central importance to the Sex Pistols, the lasting fame each forged for themselves in the band’s afterlife, and their eternal animosity.
You’ll notice that Sid Vicious is not mentioned despite being a poster model for punk rock and rebellion. Entered late in the series via Lewis Partridge, who makes him boyish, haunted, and violent as sloppy and manipulative Emma Appleton Nancy Spongein is the black hole his aimless asteroid needs.
pistol (Mia Mizuno/FX)
But these two actors have always struggled with icons of rock ‘n’ roll’s deadliest and most damaged romantics, along with their own screen characters created by Chloe Webb and Gary Oldman in Alex Cox’s 1986 classic Sid and Nancy.
Mentioning their names brings us back to an idea of what we expect from a “Pistol” versus what the show gives us, which involves a lot of stagnation and exasperation. The best sequences are replays of familiar history. The content we know so little about, i.e. the introduction to Lydon joining the band, lacks focus and energy.
Even as the narrative tightens its focus, the main characters – especially the women in the cast – are swept away by the tides. It’s frustrating that this includes a (sub)plot that shows Chrissy Hynd from Sidney Chandler, a Westwood employee at her SEX who has real talent and aspires to be in a band as well, but McLaren deliberately neglects to ensure his show of rock ponies takes the media lead in Rise Music punk rock.
Riley’s Westwood is also offered as a McLaren Satellite, but at least she and Chandler have been given a little more personal development to work with model icon Maisie Williams’ villain Jordan, a widely known mystery about which little is known. This series keeps that way, and it’s a pick. . . Like hiring a famously talented actor to play her and not giving her much to conjure up.
Want a daily wrap-up of all the salon news and reviews? Sign up for our morning newsletter, Crash Course.
(At least she’s got amazing costumes to work with; Bianca Stevens, the gorgeous British actress, is given less dignity as a mentally ill woman whose main goal is to maintain shocking abuse and ridicule to ultimately inspire the Pistols single. She’s also the only performer of color with any streaks or depth, which is contained in a single loop.)
Indeed, if not for Jones’ biography providing the basis for the “Pistol,” one wonders whether Boyle and Pierce would have been better served by focusing on McLaren rather than relegating it to mediocrity. He’s not a hero – and that’s what makes Brody Sangster so watchable – but he’s a Machiavellian force that ends up generating many superstars either directly or, in Hende’s case, as an opposing springboard.
Desiring what could have always been simpler than embracing what is. Plus, Jones, Cook, Lydon — and Westwood, for that matter — will have the keynote on which versions of the Sex Pistols story end up going forward because McLaren is dead.
However, 20 years ago, he understood exactly what was holding back stories like this. It’s the same problem that counterculture has always faced once it became mainstream, and it can be summed up in two words, he said in a 2002 column for The Guardian.
McLaren wrote: “One is ‘originality’ and the other is ‘karaoke.’” Karaoke mimics the words of others. It’s a life by proxy, liberated by hindsight, and unburdened by the messy process of creativity.”
This is a “pistol” in short. What some of us want is a different peek into a revolution, a taste of something real behind all the photos. What we get is another popular souvenir, courtesy of a respected version of Ditty we’ve heard before.
FX’s “Pistol” will premiere May 31 on Hulu. Watch a trailer below, via YouTube.
More stories like this: