Chris Connor reviews Danny Boyle’s Sex Pistols limited series Pistol…
The Sex Pistols may have been a short-lived group but they were at the vanguard of the British Punk movement, anarchic and inflammatory, spearheaded by red haired devil Johnny Rotten and bassist Sid Vicious they remain an iconic group 45 years on. The group’s story as told by guitarist Steve Jones’ book Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol, has been adapted into the six part miniseries Pistol helmed by Trainspotting and 28 Days Later director Danny Boyle and written by Baz Luhrmann collaborator Craig Pearce. The series depicts the group’s rapid rise and eventual fall with the death of Sid Vicious at the age of 21 in 1979, and boasts some marquee names with Thomas-Brodie Sangster starring as the group’s Manager Malcom McLaren while Tallulah Riley portrays’ Punk Fashion icon Vivienne Westwood with Toby Wallace as Jones and Anson Boon as Johnny Rotten.
Pistol has been dogged by controversy recently with John Lydon claiming the series to be inaccurate and filing a lawsuit to prevent the group’s music being used. This obviously adds a layer of intrigue and leads audiences perhaps to question the validity of the material with the band members claiming different events. The series itself plays fast and loose with events with the early episodes very much revolving around Jones and a wasted appearance from Derry Girls star Dylan Llewelyn in nothing more than a cameo role as early band member Wally Nightingale. Jones is initially depicted as an Artful Dodger-type stealing gear from various bands including Spiders From Mars, with David Bowie’s influence apparent early on. The overt focus on Steve perhaps detracts from the other members of the group, with Vicious’ story told of course previously in the Gary Oldman led Sid & Nancy back in 1986.
Perhaps the biggest crime of Pistol is how tame it feels compared to real events; there is never a true sense of anarchy or revolution in spite of the performances and it doesn’t truly feel like we’re watching the rise of the Sex Pistols. One of the most distracting facets of the show is the lack of the group’s music until later on and while there are welcome tunes from the era from the likes of Sly and The Family Stone, Pink Floyd, The Kinks and T. Rex it ultimately feels distracting and deflects attention from the core focus of the show. Story wise the inclusion of Pretenders frontwoman Chrissie Hynde is a nice touch but her presence across the show is incredibly jarring and may make some wish they were watching a show about her with Sydney Chandler doing a fine job capturing a pre fame Hynde with the show overlapping with the start of The Pretenders career.
For a show that is six episodes the story feels muddled and at times rushed, we get frequent glimpses at Jones’ childhood, something that the book touches on heavily but with so much of the focus on his later years, these are not delved into in sufficient detail and feel out of place and underdeveloped. Jones’ relationship with his stepfather ultimately feels repetitive when it should form a core part of the show’s focus.
The show isn’t without its merits however as the cast do a fine job bringing the larger than life group and their associates to life; Brodie-Sangster is on enjoyable form as McLaren bringing his devilish macabre attitude and Riley is a game if slightly underutilised Westwood. The cast portraying the band do their best job with the material to make them engaging and renegade but the direction and writing lack conviction and energy to make this a truly revolutionary affair.
Pistol ultimately falls flat, lacking the energy the Punk movement was known for and feeling too pedestrian. It is a shame that the show which will attract an audience from Boyle’s name and fans of the group, fails to deliver on its promise and the quality of the names attached. It perhaps works best as a reflection of 70s society but in spite of some strong performances, it cannot capitalise on the strength of the source material and the real life story that made the Pistols so iconic, reframing the landscape of UK music in such a short time together.