Attending the premiere of Danny Boyle’s PISTOL, the serialised retelling of the Sex Pistols’ journey, was always likely to be a curious affair. As fashions flared and the hum of middling celebrity excitement grew — I locked eyes with Claire Sweeney for a brief but beautiful moment — there was a palpable paradox which threatened to colour the rosy palette a sinister side of puke. As I strode the punkified red carpet, the screaming girls, FX and Disney signposts and general high-end constructions of stages, barriers and a whirlwind of TV cameras, I couldn’t help but share a giggle with myself.
Of course, for those of us who have spent the majority of our lives in awe of the explosive energy of Johnny Rotten, Steve Jones, Glen Matlock, Paul Cook and Sid Vicious, seeing the band celebrated for their potent punch of pop culture revolution feels only right. Look around the music industry today, and you can witness their influence in almost every corner. From Yungblud to IDLES and everyone in between, few of the alternative music industry’s darlings would be operating today if Malcolm McLaren and his Sex Pistols hadn’t emerged from Vivienne Westwood’s SEX on the King’s Road. But to have such an anti-establishment figurehead appear in such a glossy setting, backed by the big cartoon mouse, is, without doubt, the band’s final joke on us all.
“He’d be laughing at us here, with Disney,” Danny Boyle tells his audience about McLaren’s view of music and the band. It’s true. McLaren was one of the most divisive voices in music. A serial provocateur, he was the man in charge of dressing the New York Dolls as Chinese communists and subsequently seeing them disband — a mark of the costuming’s success in his eyes. However, he was also a fearsome promoter and would have seen the paradoxical potency of partnering two separate icons so neatly together. However, this confusing positioning often upends production.
PISTOL is a serialised account of Steve jones’ tell-all autobiography of his time both with and without the Sex Pistols. Throughout his memoir and subsequently the series, we are given a no-holds-barred version of events that puts “Cutie Jones” and his relationship with Chrissie Hynde as a central figure in the punk pioneers’ trajectory to the top of the pile as we learn many tidbits of rock and roll revelry that will certainly impress punk aficionados. Toby Wallace as Jones gives an affected yet charismatic depiction of the guitarist, expertly navigating his tragic upbringing and the jovial armour he put in place to protect himself from it; a large part of the first episode’s narrative drive. Likewise, Sydney Chandler as Hynde is captivating and sultry in every move.
In fact, the casting of the project is impeccable. Maisie Williams as the late, great Pamela ‘Jordan’ Rooke, one of the icons of the scene, is icy cool. The power couple at the centre of punk, McLaren and Westwood, are wonderfully represented by Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Talulah Riley, respectively. Elsewhere, Anson Boon’s Johnny Rotten may well have been put through an Instagram filter, but his spitting vocal and deftly adapted speaking voice is the mark of a well-versed performer. However, one of the more disappointing casting choices sees heartthrob Louis Partridge take on the role of Sid Vicious. To choose Partridge in the role seems a clear bid to ignore Vicious’ troubled history and capitalise on the aforementioned hordes of screaming teens who were all waiting for Partridge to attend the event.
This is the crux of the project’s problems. As a serialised retelling of a beloved story, having to pay heed to both the timeline of events and the practical need to entertain the audience is imperative. Boyle and crew have certainly delivered a watchable, sometimes informative, usually jovial, completely curated series that will keep plenty of old punk heads happy and perhaps introduce a whole new generation to one of the most important bands in the history of modern music. However, it is impossible to escape just how wildly over-stylised it is. No more is this seen than when, after staying up on amphetamines for three days to learn his guitar, Steve Jones entertains the Pistols and Johnny Rotten to deliver the singer’s first audition.
In a scene from the second episode that would make High School Musical writers feel a little chintzy, the two protagonists exchange verbal jousting before the music takes over, and they share a mutually inspired moment of musical creativity, all while McLaren pupates with pound notes in the corner. It is both galling and gross in equal measure and it left me with a serious question to debate, was this just TV screens desecrating the sanctity of such a musical connection for the need of a few great shots, or is this carefully constructed burst of artistry a clean copy of what actually happened?
I’ve spent a good few years admiring the Sex Pistols, so I’m well aware that much of their enthralling entertainment and refusal to conform was delivered to the demand of McLaren himself. It’s a sad fact that all punks most swallow. McLaren put the band together just as Simon Fuller had put Take That together, picking and choosing looks and attitudes to fit the vision he had for his “assassins”, this series only reaffirms that point. Both on and off-screen, as the reality of this big-budget production of the working class musical revolution sets in, there’s a parallel notion of cashing in on genuine spirit, which is hard to ignore.
Is PISTOL entertaining and enjoyable? Certainly. Does it make me feel a little bit queasy every time I think about it? Yes. Visually, the series is wonderful; Boyle’s passion for the project is also clear throughout, delivering as much cinematic prowess as has ever been seen on streaming platforms. His splicing of archival footage alongside the birth of the band does a lot to explain the cultural sentiment of the time. But there’s something unavoidably vulgar about it all.
The paradox of punk was enough to see it burn out within 18 months back in the 1970s; while there can be no doubt that Britain is in need of a similar moment of artistic artillery fire, one suspects the highly-filtered and intensely coordinated retelling of Jones’ story won’t be the match to light the fuse. If you ever wondered what Skins would have looked like if Julien Temple directed it, then now you have your answer.