Johnny Rotten was right to sue to stop FX’s Pistol from going forward.
The Sex Pistols and PiL frontman ultimately was unsuccessful in his legal efforts last year to prevent the seminal band’s music being used in the Danny Boyle-directed miniseries. However, Pistol, which dropped in its entirety today on Disney-owned Hulu, is an overly sentimental love letter that never should have been sent. You’d find more depth and authenticity on how England has been really dreamin’ over the decades in this week’s pomp-packed Platinum Jubilee for the disastrous reign of Elizabeth II.
Simply put, Pistol is more junk than punk.
Even with searing classics like “God Save the Queen” in the well-crafted soundtrack mix, the six-episode series based in part on guitarist Steve Jones’ 2017 memoir limps along when it should roar. Hobbled with a surprisingly sub-standard coming-of-age story held together figuratively and literally by amphetamines, safety pins and the POV of Toby Wallace as Jones, Pistol gets jammed up in the contradictions of the Sex Pistols where it could have reveled in them with revolutionary enthusiasm and clear eyes.
In that sense, a sharper blueprint for the bloated Craig Pierce-penned project could have been singer John Lydon’s sparring Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs from 1993 melded with the saga of the band’s Situationist-inspired manager in Paul Gorman’s admittedly overwritten The Life & Times of Malcolm McLaren: The Biography from 2020. While both books, like their pivotal subjects, are problematic, they also aren’t afraid to trudge through the grueling realities of post-war British working-class life and the personal perseverance of its protagonists.
That’s not something you are going to find much of in the Behind the Music-formatted Pistol. As the constructed band themselves, Wallace’s Jones, Anson Boon’s Lydon/Rotten, Louis Partridge’s Sid Vicious, Jacob Slater’s drummer Paul Cook, and Christian Lees as original bassist Glen Matlock are merely pawns in Boyle and Pearce’s nostalgia game. Damningly, Pistol’s greatest achievement may be its ability to render the manipulative and occasionally incandescent McLaren, as played here by impish The Queen’s Gambit’s Thomas Brodie-Sangster, as a dim “lost little boy.”
That sort of faux pas and slippage through Boyle and Pearce’s undeniably talented hands is in no small part how Pistol stumbles away from all that was so towering about 1986’s Alex Cox-directed Sid & Nancy, starring Gary Oldman. Where that film went for the iconic, this show leans into dull convention. Tossing in a Bowie cameo of sorts, the erratically paced Pistol is pretty much a boys club, with Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams adrift as punk icon Jordan and the trio of Chrissie Hynde (Sydney Chandler), Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley) and Nancy Spungen (Emma Appleton) mostly mishandled.
Production designer and Trainspotting alum Kave Quinn does a more-than-solid job depicting the brutal desolation of 1970s Britain, with its toxic fumes of faded Imperial braggadocio, but the gutter-and stardust-origins of punk rock and the Pistols were about much more than the look or even the times. With just one real album under the respective belts, and a mere three years total in existence, plus not-so-embarrassing reunions in 1996 and 2007, the Sex Pistols were a cultural paradox. Aiming for what looks like popular appeal, the FX Productions miniseries from EPs Jones, Boyle, Moulin Rouge! co-scribe Pearce Gail Lyon, Anita Camarata, Tracey Seaward, Paul Lee, Hope Hartman and wiip drains all the blood, guts and broken fingernails out of what is by definition an epic tale of a gang of young men who snatched cash out of chaos and much more.
Right near the end of the very last Sex Pistols gig of the imploding band’s 1978 American tour, the then-still-Johnny Rotten asked the crowd at San Francisco’s Winterland: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
Over 40 years later, FX’s Pistol knows its blushing answer.
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