Before the release of Danny Boyle’s FX on Hulu bio-series Pistol there was controversy resulting from lead vocalist Johnny Rotten’s attempt to prevent the show from using Sex Pistols music. Rotten believed that the show would fail to be truly respectful and representative of the influential rock band’s history. In the last few years, Rotten has lost some of his punk cred by morphing from an iconoclast dissing the Queen to a fervent supporter of Donald Trump, but in this case, Rotten was on the mark. Despite the heavy-handed marketing of Pistol as an in-your-face punk series, the show is ultimately a dud.
Based on guitarist Steve Jones’ biography, Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol, the series focuses on Jones as portrayed by Toby Wallace, who previously impressed critics in the Australian film Babyteeth. Having grown up in an impoverished background, Jones channels his rage into his music by playing in bands with local kids, but a fateful meeting with Malcolm McLaren (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) leads to greater things for the young lad. Fresh off managing the New York Dolls in the downtown NY punk scene, McLaren sees potential in Jones and forms a band to bring the new punk spirit to England.
There are good performances by the cast. Anson Boon and Louis Partridge are finely cast as Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious, respectively. It was refreshing to see the vital support and influence that women had in the Sex Pistols story with the addition of their fans and collaborators Jordan (Maisie Williams), Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley), Siouxsie Sioux (Beth Dillon), and Chrissie Hynde (Sydney Chandler). Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams is a real delight as Jordan the early punk influencer whose unique fashion style defined the London look.
The downside to these performances is that we don’t get much of them. It was great to see Chrissie Hynde portrayed as part of the Sex Pistol story, but her own story as an expat American who would later form the successful band the Pretenders deserves its own series. Emma Appleton portrays Nancy Spungen, but the series doesn’t offer anything new for this character. It’s the same old narrative of Spungen as a woman who leads to a man’s downfall. Spungen was indeed a flawed person, but Pistol could have brought more nuance to her story.
Perhaps six episodes aren’t enough to tell a story such as this with so many characters, but Boyle’s frantic editing certainly didn’t help. To appear cool and edgy, Boyle utilizes a hyperactive editing style that is jarring and cuts scenes way too early. Audiences never get a chance to properly absorb a performance or to take a scene in. The cinematography is shot in 4:3 much like how the film was shot in the seventies, but whatever authenticity gained by that was lost by the editing.
More disappointing is the clunky dialogue. Lines like, “Were going to kick this country awake if it kills us” and “With the right guidance you can the world,” sound way too Hollywood perfect to come from the mouths of people who were being real with trying, unlike this series. Too many characters say how groundbreaking they are, but Boyle doesn’t show you any real reason to find what they’re doing to be impressive.
The show is visually impressive. The fashion is on point and the gritty staging of seventies-era London perfectly shows what garbage and rat infest hellhole the city had become. The problem is without any real substance in the script, this is all window-dressings. Pistol makes the mistake of focusing on the aesthetics of punk, the clothes, the crazy hairstyles and make-up, at the cost of conveying the true attitude behind the punk ethos.
If you manage to watch all six episodes of Pistol, you may say to yourself what Johnny Rotten asked the audience at the 1978 show at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco right before the Sex Pistols broke up; “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”