“The music is only a launching pad,” remarks The Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm Maclaren (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) ahead of an early concert for the band. “The criteria,” he continues, “is whether you’ve got something to say.”
He’s explaining how and why a rock band can catch fire in the popular imagination, but it’s as true of a rock biopic: something like Pistol is worthwhile if, and only if, it can stray beyond the purely biographical and render its dramatised history in such a way that captures the appeal of its subject. It’s not enough to be told that Johnny Rotten replaced Wally Nightingale, or that Sid Vicious took his name from a particularly violent hamster – what was it that made The Sex Pistols so subversive, what was it that gave them a foothold in culture and counter-culture, what was it about them that mattered?
Pistol certainly has its take on The Sex Pistols, as it asserts at length. They’re not just musicians but saboteurs, assassins, shock troops in a cultural revolution, the voice of a lost generation with no future, no hope, and no other aim but to destroy. The series is often prosaic that way, each character keen to explain to another the significance of their “rancid brilliance” – rarely, though, do they demonstrate it. Danny Boyle (an ever-present authorial hand) is clearly most at home in pure biography and aesthetic, but rarely manages to capture anything of the culture The Sex Pistols existed in, cut through, and broke out of; it’s a grounding that Pistol needs, and the series flounders in its absence.
Boyle’s direction doesn’t help. Pistol is reliant – too reliant – on a constant, dizzying rush of montages, grainy archive footage flickering into life at the slightest provocation: picket lines, buildings demolished, birds escaping. The band can’t even drive from one rehearsal to the next without the journey being intercut with clips from a Michael Caine movie. It settles as it goes along, a little, a more straightforward narrative emerging from the mess of stylistic tics Pistol began as, though never quite loses that screwball sensibility (a stray Hitler reference is crosscut with clips from a Nazi rally, just in case anyone didn’t know who he was).
It’s meant to capture the band’s anarchic spirit, but mostly it feels like a crutch for Boyle – a showy and attention-grabbing gesture, certainly, but one that proves disorienting in its hyperactivity. If the style were more in tune with the substance, it’d be easier to appreciate; it’s almost admirable how form follows content here, but these montages aren’t just an expression of pent-up energy, they’re also the exclusive representation of a wider cultural landscape beyond the Sex Pistols. It’s simulacra at best, a shortcut to set the scene rather than something that speaks to an understanding of what animated the era.
That sensibility extends to the often distractingly mannered performances. Some are better than others: Anson Boon as Johnny Rotten is impressively committed in his shakey, wide-eyed intensity, contorting with janky movements as he sings like he’s having a breakdown, and Sydney Chandler finds a lot of heart in an otherwise thankless role as Chrissie Hynde. The rest of the cast don’t fare quite so well, each pointedly artificial in their attempts to recreate rather than inhabit the Sex Pistols – it’s likely a consequence of a script that rejects subtlety in favour of the more clangingly literal, but Pistol is full of unnatural, capital-P-Performances from actors all very aware that they’re in a prestige rock biopic.
Others struggle to be heard above Danny Boyle’s directorial tics: Toby Wallace as guitarist Steve Jones is Pistol’s nominal lead (the series is based on Jones’ memoir Lonely Boy), but his performance feels oddly anodyne and indistinct, gradually relegated to a supporting character in his own story. Often, it feels like Boyle and screenwriter Craig Pearce adapted Jones’ memoir less because of a particular interest in Jones as a person – a founding member of the band, unlike the more notorious Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious who came later – and more simply because Lonely Boy offered a way into a world they were more passionate about.
Some aspects of the series work, or at least come closer to doing so. The third episode takes advantage of Pistol’s television home with a side story about a patient in a psychiatric unit: she’s spat at by orderlies, and later relishes the viscera of a Sex Pistols concert on release. Saliva fills the air like a blizzard, and in that moment Pistol’s big ideas crystallise with sudden clarity – everything it’s been trying to say about repression and freedom, about self-expression and oppression, about opportunities within chaos, it all clicks into place, just for a fraction of a second.
But then it’s gone again, and Pistol’s lofty ambitions crash back to earth like spit falling to the ground. Those flashes of insight come and go in an instant, and seem for all the world like an accident. Maybe that’s appropriate, in a way, for a series chronicling the rise and fall of a cultural lightning rod – but it doesn’t exactly make for television worth watching.
Pistol begins on Disney+ on Tuesday 31 May, with all episodes available at once. I’ve seen 3 of a total of 6 episodes before writing this review.