Every story about a rock band’s rise and demise eventually hits the same beats. The members argue and develop massive egos. They get hooked on drugs. They become disenchanted with their managers and lose sight of why they ever wanted to be in a band in the first place.
All of the above applies to the Sex Pistols, the controversial British punk rockers who quite literally spat in the face of traditional English society when they bulldozed onto the scene in the mid-1970s. The group stood at the epicenter of the punk movement, both musically and aesthetically, and inspired generations of artists who followed, well after the Pistols broke up in 1978. They were a singular band that succumbed to the same demons that haunted almost every artist in every episode of Behind the Music.
So how does one make a show about the Sex Pistols that captures their countercultural shock value but also coherently recounts their rise and demise? The answer is you can’t, or at least you can’t do both at the same time. Pistol, the FX limited series whose six episodes dropped exclusively on Hulu earlier this week, is proof of that. Creator and writer Craig Pearce, well-known for his collaborations with Baz Luhrmann, and Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle have clearly thrown their hearts into this series, which is well-acted and often entertaining, but ultimately unsuccessful in harnessing the sense of anarchy that the Sex Pistols famously projected.
In the third episode, a journalist from NME asks the band’s members, post-gig, what they want to say with their music. “Actually, we’re not into music,” answers Pistols guitarist and co-founder Steve Jones (Toby Wallace). “We’re into chaos.” This is something Jones, whose book Lonely Boy: Tales From a Sex Pistol inspired this series, actually said. Pistol’s job is to make us feel the truth of that statement.
It tries. From the very first scene, Boyle injects almost-subliminal flashes of imagery — working-class Londoners, posh Brits drinking champagne, David Bowie performing as Ziggy Stardust — that evoke the influences that helped shape the Sex Pistols. Odd camera angles and quick edits are deployed during many of the live performance scenes, which, appropriately, are sweaty, jumpy, and sometimes interrupted by the tossing of chairs (by the band) or beer bottles (by the audience), as well as spitting (by both). The whole endeavor is framed in an old-school, 4:3 aspect ratio, telegraphing both nostalgia for the period and the sense that the Sex Pistols were boxed in by an English society that didn’t know what to do with a movement that thumbed its pierced nose at conventional society.
All these touches are unusual and a little experimental. But they don’t feel actively dangerous, not in the way that Boyle’s Trainspotting felt a little dangerous back in 1996. The kind of chaos the Sex Pistols generated and embraced was rooted in unpredictability. You never knew what the band might figuratively or literally throw at you, or when they would curse their way through a high-profile appearance on a UK talk show, or when they might opt to hock a loogie in your direction. But it’s hard to be truly unpredictable when, like so many series that have debuted this year, Pistol is telling us a story whose events are already known, in a genre that is so well-worn.
This frustrating sense of familiarity is exacerbated by the series’ flirtations with lesser-known elements of this narrative. As is often the case in rock biopics, several women who went on equally compelling and significant journeys during this time exist on the outer rings of the plot, although Pistol is certainly more generous in its treatment of them than it could have been. Designer Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley), whose fashion designs and London shop SEX were central to the Sex Pistols’ radical punk look, is a constant presence, but too many of her scenes involve her arguing with Malcolm McLaren (Thomas Brodie-Sangster of The Queen’s Gambit), the band’s over-controlling manager and her boyfriend at the time. A love affair between Steve and a striving musician who works in Westwood’s shop, a young woman by the name of Chrissie Hynde (Sydney Chandler), is a bit of a contrivance — the relationship between the Pistol and the future frontwoman of the Pretenders was apparently less of a great romance than the series would have you believe. But it affords the opportunity to see a young Hynde play music and make her desire to succeed known to whoever will listen. Including her and Vivienne, as well as Jordan, the daring model and provocateur played by Maisie Williams who helped pioneer the punk aesthetic, demonstrates respect for their experiences. But it also emphasizes the degree to which women were right in the thick of the punk movement, often exhibiting more talent and focus than their male counterparts, yet still considered secondary to the major plot. A tale about a band whose members are all male, and also happens to be based on a memoir by one of those members, is inevitably going to be largely about the boys.
Then there’s Nancy Spungen, whose mutually destructive relationship with Pistols bassist Sid Vicious (Louis Partridge), is one of the best-known sub-narratives within the overall Sex Pistols saga. Played by English actress Emma Appleton with a raspy, inelegant American accent, Nancy is treated with derision by just about everyone in Sid’s orbit, not to mention the public. But Pistol tries to muster some empathy for her with dialogue that sometimes awkwardly explains her background — while trying to seduce Steve, she says “I was choked at birth by my umbilical cord and diagnosed schizophrenic at 15” — and, more effectively, a scene where Chrissie recognizes how young Nancy is, and how much she craves kindness. Pistol puts an ambiguous, even more Romeo and Juliet-ish spin than usual on Nancy’s death and Sid’s fatal overdose that follows. But that can’t compensate for the fact that we know, sadly, exactly where this romance is headed the minute Nancy focuses her eyes on Sid performing on a stage.
The most truly edgy element in Pistol may be Anson Boon’s electric portrayal of John Lydon, a.k.a. Johnny Rotten, the volatile frontman and face of the Sex Pistols. The real Lydon is not a fan of Pistol and didn’t consult on it; he even sued to try to prevent the band’s music from being in the show and lost. That’s a shame because Boon, his eyes perpetually so bugged out and intense that it seems like Rotten might pop out of his own skin at any second, really does him justice. As a stage presence, he is a dare manifested in human form, meeting the fury in his audiences with even more stubborn, anti-authoritarian rage.
Underneath the posturing, John also shows moments of decorum and gentleness. In a scene late in the series, he chastises Vicious at a Christmas benefit for striking firefighters and their families. “Sid, these are the children of working-class heroes and we are here to bring cheer to their otherwise dismal Christmas,” he says bluntly. “No potty mouth.” It would have been so easy to play Rotten as a cartoon, but every time Boon skates close to that line, he again offers a balancing glimpse of the singer’s humanity. It’s a performance that keeps revealing itself, which is the opposite of predictable.
To be fair, there are moments that succeed in recreating the bedlam involved in being a Sex Pistol. The show takes a raucous, cheeky trip through their first and last U.S. tour that is fun to watch and ends abruptly, and notoriously, when Rotten cuts short a gig in San Francisco with the question, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” Pistol doesn’t exactly cheat its audience. It’s obviously been crafted with reverence and care. But it’s proof that genuine anarchy can’t be recreated.