Culture is on a bad nostalgia trip and there doesn’t seem to be an end to the hallucinations in sight. This week on “Beating a Dead Horse, But Make It Fashion” is Pistol, a clever little six-episode miniseries about the Sex Pistols and the rise of punk in the U.K. brought to you by FX, written by Craig Pearce (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge, The Great Gatsby), directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire), and adapted from guitarist Steve Jones’ real-life memoir, Lonely Boy: Tales From a Sex Pistol. With that kind of pedigree, one can and should expect a certain amount of style and camp in the biopic. And in those ways, the boys deliver. In others, woof. Let’s get into it.
Much has been said about the arrival of “punk” as we know it via England in the mid- to late 1970s. Too much, in fact. (I’m not sure anything needs to be said about it ever again, and this is coming from someone who has a PhD in Punk Studies, on track to be a tenured professor. That means I know several people with an authentic Germs burn.) But FX/Hulu felt otherwise and so here we are with Pistol, the millionth attempt at educating the masses on the Sex Pistols.
It all starts off well enough: shots of Bowie circa Ziggy Stardust, that infamous flash in time that inspired a generation of disaffected British youths to put on makeup and maybe suck a cock or two. I’ve heard at least three different semi-famous Music Men known for being in bands that got big in the ’80s describe seeing David Bowie on TV for the first time as the moment in history, the shock wave that electrocuted punk into existence. So, like I said, it all starts off fine. Then the acting begins.
It all starts off well enough: shots of Bowie circa Ziggy Stardust, that infamous flash in time that inspired a generation of disaffected British youths to put on makeup and maybe suck a cock or two.
“I don’t want to fuck you—I want you to fuck the world,” eventual Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren (played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster) says to a young Steve Jones (Toby Wallace) inside the hallowed walls of SEX, the Vivienne Westwood shop where much of the series plays out. I don’t know if the infamous McLaren ever actually said this to Jones, and it’s entirely possible that he did, but when I watch it all go down in this first episode all I can do is cringe. Like, who the fuck actually talks like that? I know McLaren was a notoriously outlandish character, and sure, these people are British, but still, I don’t buy it. Anyway, Steve tries to steal some pants from the shop—his thievery is a big part of his story line throughout—and he gets busted. Westwood and McLaren decide to make him try stuff on and ask him why he stole what he stole instead of calling the cops. Everything is a brand opportunity, right?
Then McLaren utters that dumb line, having seen the monetary potential in the kid after Jones compares plaid suspender pants to a straitjacket, and somehow this moment is supposed to be the big aha moment, the spark that ignites McLaren’s vision for a “band of sexy assassins,” a.k.a. the Sex Pistols. It sounds silly because it is. In this instant I know I’m in for a sort of Velvet Goldmine-esque camp rendition of this sordid story, which sounds good on paper, I know, but there’s no “Needle in the Camel’s Eye” glory. Pistol feels stale. Stale before it’s even started cooking.
See, the thing about casting a bunch of models or whoever these people are to portray real-life piece-of-shit lunatics like members of the Sex Pistols is that none of them have the street-worn charisma to pull it off. It’s evident from the jump, but I’m getting ahead of myself here. There are some things to like. The styling and fashion are phenomenal. Really well-done. Give it all to me. Also, John Lydon tried to block Hulu’s access to the Pistols’ music, but Steve Jones and the other guy sued him and won. They got the rights to use all the music necessary for a show like this to happen, which means the soundtrack is great. Duh. The episode that covers the story of Pauline, the schizophrenic superfan who stalked the Pistols carrying a fetus in her bag, inspiring the controversial abortion song “Bodies,” was pretty compelling as well. It’s maybe the most well-executed and interesting story line in the whole bit because of the way the tension is built, not giving too much away too soon. But I guess I just fucked that up for you with the whole “fetus in her bag” thing because you actually don’t realize that’s what it is until the very end of the episode. My bad.
To be clear and fair and all that, Danny Boyle’s overall aesthetic and panache as a director make for some really interesting edits, pacing, and emotional bee-stinger moments throughout the six episodes. He delivers on the sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. There’s lots of that. Sex scenes between Chrissie Hynde (played by Sydney Chandler) and Jones are particularly hot. Unfortunately these tender moments are some of the only ones where Chandler’s portrayal of Hynde is compelling, probably because these people are models. Honestly, it took a while for me to even realize it was Chrissie Hynde being characterized on screen, that’s how little of Hynde’s gritty, smoky-eyed je ne sais quoi comes through, which is a particularly offensive failure. I did appreciate how much attention her story line was given throughout the series, however. The women who shaped this particular pocket of the punk scene tend to get glossed over by the shock and awe of McLaren and his acne-scarred assassins, or whatever, but Chrissie Hynde straight-up taught Steve Jones how to write songs. She was one of the only genuinely talented people in this entire cesspool of morons. Never forget that shit. Honestly, an entire series about her and the Pretenders would be way more interesting. But I digress.
I refuse to Google the actor who played John Lydon, a.k.a. “Johnny Rotten,” because it was so fucking unbearable to watch from start to finish that I have nothing nice to say. Nothing at all. First of all, whoever that actor is is way too good-looking to play someone as truly hideous as Rotten. The guy who plays Sid Vicious is appropriately hot but makes an absolute mockery of the man, and Nancy’s representation may as well have been a Saturday Night Live skit. Chalk it up to bad casting. But really, I don’t blame the actors. I get the feeling none of them have ever slept on the street, carved their own skin with broken glass, been violently gang-raped, gotten molested, done time, or shot dope in their lives, and good for them! But the people whose stories are being told here—these are people who were/are legitimately fucked up. Poor. Abused. Nothing to live for or fall back on. Many of them didn’t make it out alive, and I’m not just referring to the horrific deaths of Sid and Nancy. The way this silly show attempts to glamorize all that while also being “serious” or whatever, it just comes off like a parody. The spirit of punk is very rarely, if ever, present. No wonder John Lydon wanted nothing to do with it and did his damnedest to stop it from happening. Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated, Johnny boy?
Despite the total and complete lack of capital-P punk, Pistol is a fun watch, I guess. Your most cynical impulses will be titillated. But if you are looking for a meaningful portrayal of what was happening with culture in England in the late ’70s, punk, the lives of some of the most famous names in popular music history, etc., you’ve come to the wrong place, babe. It’s got a lot of style but very little substance, and fuck, maybe that makes it good, in a sort of roundabout way. Because even though I am left underwhelmed and a little bored, I guess that’s the way I’ve always felt about the Sex Pistols. It was the hype, the myth, and the fashion around it all that interested everyone, and in that sense Malcolm McLaren was right, the cheeky bastard! Because let’s face it—the Sex Pistols were not a good band. It all just looked cool. And that just about sums up Pistol as well.