Pistol plays the Sex Pistols story as cartoon

Danny Boyle’s six-part biopic misses the point of punk and trivialises the band’s tragedy; its best moments are down with the fans.

27 May 2022

By Graham Fuller

Anson Boon as Johnny Rotten in Pistol (2022)
Sight and Sound

► Pistol (six episodes) is on Disney+ from 31 May.

Danny Boyle’s fictional Sex Pistols biography, adapted by Baz Luhrmann collaborator Craig Pearce from Steve Jones’s memoir, takes a crudely deconstructive tabloid approach to the group’s tumultuous journey through 1975-78. Since the Pistols’ attack on establishment and middle-class hypocrisy has been historicised as a chaos-inducing, self-immolating art project, its depiction here as a hurtling imminent train wreck – allusive socio-cultural images satirically punctuating the mostly linear storyline – seems apt. The style also masks the inability of this six-part series to address the ideological import of the punk movement except on the most superficial terms.

The series’ sensationalism, which echoes the redtops’ leering exploitation of Malcolm McLaren’s subversive promotional gambits on behalf of the band, is presumably what sold it to the American FX Channel. Fatally, it trivialises the tragic aspects of the band’s demise – Nancy Spungen’s death from a stab wound and Sid Vicious’s overdose four months later, a Liebestod rendered more affectingly in Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy (1986). The slapstick tone meanwhile pollutes storytelling and performances. Though there are poignant and tender moments (Vicious at one point tells his friend Johnny Rotten / John Lydon he should look after him better), the overarching cartoonishness recalls the animated sequences Julien Temple employed in the Pistols mockumentary The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle (1980).

The series dutifully catalogues the pivotal events in the Pistols’ career: the convergences at Vivienne Westwood and McLaren’s King’s Road boutique SEX, the Today TV show fiasco with host Bill Grundy, the record-label signings and firings, the chart successes, Vicious’s supplanting of Glen Matlock and romance with Nancy Spungen, the Jubilee boat trip, the disastrous American tour, Spungen and Vicious’s deaths. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle’s canted angles and restless tracking shots suggest instability – both protagonist Steve Jones’s and Britain’s – but Pistol needed grime and vomit more than visual poetry.

The four Pistols

The most satisfying episodes follow fans: the damaged Birmingham girl whose abortion prompted the song ‘Bodies’; the two naive Huddersfield lasses delivered from evil by Westwood and punk model Jordan. Parental protectiveness and its opposites are the psychological determinants in a show that, at core, is about the building and wrecking of a ‘family’ of near-delinquent boys. Sexually abused at 10 by his stepfather, Jones acquires McLaren and Westwood as an exploitative father and mother. That the manipulative McLaren was a modern Fagin to Rotten’s Artful Dodger and Jones and Vicious’s fatherless Olivers proves a valid cliché.

An honest effort has been made to ground the saga in everyday reality – Jones’s struggles to learn guitar, the Pistols’ composing of songs, their bickering and matey horseplay. There are cups of tea and introductions to each other’s mums. Unfortunately, Jones, as ingenuously played by Toby Wallace, isn’t a sufficiently intriguing and dynamic personality to build a series around. In the absence of a central love story, the guitarist’s friendship-with-benefits with a pre-Pretenders Chrissie Hynde raises issues of responsibility and perseverance, but it’s feeble stuff. Lydon’s strenuous objections to the making of the series are partially justified by its need for his alter ego Rotten, the group’s shrewd figurehead and voice of integrity, to be the focal point.

Emma Appleton as Nancy Spungen and Louis Partridge as Sid Vicious in Pistol

Among several broad performances, the most preposterous is Thomas Brodie-Sangster’s as McLaren, less a flesh-and-blood character than an arch Mephistophelean demiurge whose every drawled utterance is a cod-revolutionary slogan. Anson Boon gets Rotten’s nasal intonation right but his body language and thousand-mile stare wrong, suggesting instead an apoplectic version of the footballer Jamie Vardy. Talulah Riley plays Vivienne Westwood as a sardonic ice queen. As Hynde, Jones’s mentor and sometime lover, Sydney Chandler is an unacceptably soft, wistful helpmeet.

Too much beauty is on display. In the context of punk, which revealed the aesthetic and political power of what the mainstream considers ugly, the casting of gorgeous actors sends the wrong message. Punk did much to deflate sexism, but a scene in which Maisie Williams’s Jordan rides a bicycle wearing nothing under her see-through mac feels like a sop to the Carry On… and Confessions of… sensibility rather than an expression of female sexual autonomy.

Beth Dillon’s fleeting, note-perfect impersonation of Siouxsie Sioux, insouciance personified, gives a sense of what might have been, in a series problematic in its representation of women: a sequence designed to show Hynde’s compassion first humiliates Spungen, an unwanted caller at her flat, by making her the object of Swiftian disgust. In the same way, Pistol tramples on Spungen and Vicious’s graves as flagrantly as did McLaren, whose vampirism Lydon condemned in Temple’s The Filth and the Fury (2000).

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