Sex Pistols story spills out in a fast-paced, aggressive bio on Hulu
No punk expertise required to make sense of the flashy six-part series about Johnny Rotten and his bandmates.
Even before the release of the FX on Hulu six-part limited series “Pistol,” John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten tried (and failed) to block the use of the Sex Pistols’ original music in the series, and a statement on Lydon’s website dismissed the effort as a “middle class fantasy” and “a fairy tale which bears little resemblance to the truth”—but isn’t that what you’d expect from the now 66-year-old Lydon?
I mean, it would be unsettling if Johnny Rotten said something like, “FINALLY, the story of the Sex Pistols gets its mainstream due, and I just want to thank everyone who did such a lovely job of bringing those glorious memories back to life! Cheers, and God Save the Queen!”
Only those who were there at the time (and survived) could truly vouch for the veracity of “Pistol,” but in the hands of showrunner Craig Pearce (a frequent collaborator with Baz Luhrmann as co-writer of “Romeo + Juliet,” “Moulin Rouge!”, “The Great Gatsby” and the upcoming “Elvis”) and director Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting,” “Slumdog Millionaire”), this is an appropriately kinetic, flashy, fast-paced and entertaining video-biography of the Sex Pistols, filmed in an often grainy, boxy, 4:3 ratio that replicates the look of TV footage from the 1970s.
A six-episode series available now on Hulu.
Like the Pistols themselves, the series is all about attention-grabbing moves, with style (or some might say, a deliberate lack of style) sometimes triumphing over substance. Even if you’re not the world’s biggest fan of punk rock (my hand is raised), there’s no denying the cultural impact of the movement and the Sex Pistols’ standing as arguably the most influential group in the genre on either side of the pond. “Pistol” is a worthy addition to such films as Alex Cox’s searing “Sid and Nancy” (1986) and Julien Temple’s seminal documentary “The Filth and the Fury” (2000).
Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious are by far the most well-known names associated with the band, but “Pistol” is based on a memoir by founding member and guitarist Steve Jones, which provides for a unique and fresh point of view. Toby Wallace delivers solid and empathetic work as Jones, who worships at the microphone of David Bowie and is determined to become a musical force in 1970s London, despite the fact he can’t play for squat. Through sheer force of will (he’s annoyingly persistent) and a combination of luck and timing, Jones finds mentors in the form of the legendary manager-promoter Malcolm McLaren (Thomas Brodie-Sangster, all grown up from his role as Sam the lovestruck kid in “Love, Actually”) and punk-fashion icon Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley).
Another key figure in Jones’ life and his development as a musician and as a person is one Chrissie Hynde (Sydney Chandler) in her pre-Pretenders phase. Even Jones can’t quite believe it when the confident, talented, sexy and smart Hynde enters into a romantic relationship with him, providing Jones (and the series) with a powerful female influence in the face of so much raging male anger.
The real Johnny Rotten would probably want to throw something at me for saying this, but Anson Boon is spectacularly good at capturing Rotten’s hilariously madcap anarchistic presence, from the fantastically accurate prosthetic bad teeth to Rotten’s anti-rock-star stage persona, which in its own way was as carefully constructed as the image of many an anti-establishment act, from Jim Morrison to the New York Dolls to the Ramones.
When the Pistols’ original bassist, Glen Matlock (Christian Lees), a key contributor to their groundbreaking work, is pushed out of the band for being too mainstream in appearance, he’s replaced by Rotten’s old mate Sid Vicious (Louis Partridge), which we know will bring about the appearance of Sid’s American girlfriend Nancy Spungen (Emma Appleton) and the specter of looming tragedy.
Even if you don’t know all the names of the players, “Pistol” makes sure not to leave us behind, with characters sometimes spouting lines that are so self-aware it feels as if they’re lifted from a Wikipedia entry about the Pistols. This is Punk Rock 101, designed to widen the audience tent to include viewers whose knowledge of the Sex Pistols is relatively limited. For all the frantic pacing and visual flourishes, for all the rebellious chaos depicted here, “Pistol” is a downright respectable telling of the tale.