Pistol is based on Steve Jones’ autobiography, ‘Lonely Boy – Tales from a Sex Pistol’
Last year, John Lydon (known the world over as Johnny Rotten) lost a court case against his former bandmates to prevent them from using Sex Pistols music in an upcoming Disney+ show. Now that all six episodes are up, we can thank our lucky stars that he did lose because otherwise we would be robbed of this heartfelt masterpiece.
The story of The Sex Pistols is, for music fans, a fairly well-worn path. Thrown together by Malcolm McLaren, the band were more about provoking a reaction than actual talent. When ponderous prog-rockers were dominating the charts, The Sex Pistols pissed off all the right people and invigorated a generation of disenfranchised youth. Their meteoric rise to fame was all too quickly followed by their implosion due to mismanagement and battling egos. Add to that the deaths of Nancy Spungen and Sid Vicious in quick succession and The Sex Pistols were over almost as soon as they began.
Pistol is based on Lonely Boy – Tales from a Sex Pistol, the autobiography of Steve Jones, the band’s guitarist and as this shows reveals, founding member. Most Pistols stories start with Johnny Rotten auditioning for the band. but this story takes it back a few steps to Steve Jones (deftly played with equal parts swagger and vulnerability by Toby Wallace) trying to get his band noticed. He walks into Vivienne Westwood’s famous clothing shop SEX where he is caught shoplifting by a young Chrissie Hynde (Sydney Chandler). Hynde at this point is years away from stardom in her own right as the frontwoman of The Pretenders, and her and Jones’ need to be taken seriously sparks an on/off relationship that is the backbone of this show. Over six episodes, Pistol takes us on an exploration of all the famous names attached to the band. Sympathetic depictions of Vivienne Westwood (Tallulah Riley) John Lydon (Anson Boon) and Sid Vicious (Louis Partridge) and a host of others can be found in this most humanising depiction of The Sex Pistols story.
It seems obvious now that Danny Boyle (whose early film Trainspotting arguably did to cinema what The Sex Pistols did to music) was the obvious choice to take on this project. Boyle, in many ways, might be the most punk director Britain has or has ever had. It’s an odd fit describing Boyle, a man in his sixties, as a ‘punk director’, but it’s valid nonetheless. Shot in 4:3, and using techniques that recreate film and video quality in use in the seventies, Boyle largely shuns the slickness that modern filmmaking has to offer. It’s only during the concert scenes, when these gigs hit their emotional high point, that Boyle uses a tantalising bit of bullet-time. The effect on the viewer is a shot in the arm of cinematic adrenaline. It makes old punks who grew up, got jobs and had kids yearn for lost nights of controlled chaos pogoing in the mosh pit.
Unlike other depictions of the band that either fear or revere them, Boyle shows them as what they probably were on some level – a bunch of young boys fiercely clamouring for attention and acceptance. This is why Boyle’s age might be key to the depiction here. When one gets to be a few decades older than your heroes who died all too soon, it’s hard not to feel a pang of sympathy for them. Possibly even a paternal desire to humanise them in a way that no other telling has thought to do.
There is no shortage of historical inaccuracies that will no doubt madden the punk purists out there, and that’s OK, it’s not a documentary. Lydon complained that this show would be a ‘watered down’ version of what really happened. But, so what if it is? After the Beatles and the Stones, The Sex Pistols are possibly the most documented band in British music history. Thanks to documentaries like The Filth & The Fury or dramatisations like Sid & Nancy starring Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb, there’s a real plurality to the story of The Sex Pistols. There’s no need for this or any other version to be the definitive take, which is remarkably freeing because it allows us to just hear Steve Jones’ version as he remembers it.
Pistol certainly embellishes the truth at various points, which is fine because it arguably serves a greater purpose than simply retelling the events. It makes The Sex Pistols young and exciting and relevant all over again. It introduces them to a new generation of fans, some who might dig deeper to find out more for themselves, and some who, if we’re really, really lucky, might just be inspired to kick off the next revolution in music.
Pistol is available now on Disney Plus.