Pistol is the mostly entertaining but somewhat defanged biopic miniseries about
the Sex Pistols that was based on the bio by the band’s guitarist, Steve Jones,
Lonely Boy: Tales of a Sex Pistol (which I reread for this review). The show
recently premiered on Hulu/FX, and it is streaming there exclusively.
Pistol fails to completely capture the anarchic chaos surrounding the punk era
and scene. This was captured better in both The Filth and the Fury doc as well
as in the more fictionalized Sid and Nancy. Perhaps the director should have
used a more de-centering directing style or off kilter angles to match the out
of control aspects of the story. But the miniseries still manages to be both
fascinating and watch able most of the time, and if you are a punk fan it is
must see TV.
Pistol was directed by the exceptionally talented film maker, Danny Boyle who
28 Days Later, Yesterday, Trainspotting, and my favorite of the bunch, Croupier,
which I picked as one of the top five films of that year. The miniseries while
impressive does not rise to the level of Boyle’s best work.
The aspect that will disappoint the band’s hardcore fans the most is that since
this is Steve’s story, the two most interesting and well-known characters
(Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious) do not show up right away. Johnny Rotten does
not show up until the second episode and Vicious comes in on the 4rth.
The cast varies from competent to superb. Toby Wallace is decent in the lead as
Steve Jones. Wallace plays the part as if Jones isn’t always smart enough to
fully understand the significance of his own band. Thomas Brodie is a standout
as the loveable/hate able McLaren who both elevated and preyed up on the band,
but he looks a bit too young for the part. Anson Boon is a good Johnny Rotten
and he does capture some his seething intelligence, stage moves, and sneering
vocal and speaking style.
The women’s roles are more prominent than the ones in most punk flicks. Tallulah
Riley-Milburn gives one of the best performances as the smart, hip clothing
designer, Vivienne Westwood who co-manages the clothing shop where all the
Pistols frequent while Emma Appleton brings out the tragic side of the disturbed
Nancy Spungen. Sydney Chandler gives one of the freshest and most likeable
performances as the young future Pretender, Chrissie Hynde.
The film chronologically follows Jones’s life up until the dissolution of the
Pistols but it leaves out everything in the novel after that including his work
in the Professionals and Chequered Past. When the novel and film start out,
Jones is depicted as a troubled teen. He was a kleptomaniac and nymphomaniac who
was disrespected by his dad and molested by a relative.
Jones was actually the one who started the Pistols (or at least the band became
the Pistols.) He stole instruments from David Bowie and others and eventually
got curious and started to play them with some encouragement from Chrissie Hynde
and Malcolm McLaren. A big moment is when his later manager, McLaurin gave him a
guitar from his hero, Sylvain Sylvain of the New York Dolls, who he and most
true punks idolized (McLaren had briefly managed them.) which was a great
Inspiration. This part was left out of the other Pistols films.
Jones originally was the vocalist but after a disastrous first concert in which
Jones refused to sing, others auditioned to do the vocals. Malcolm was impressed
by the look and charisma of a regular at his store Sex, Johnny Lydon, who is
later rechristened Johnny Rotten because of the sad state of his teeth. Lydon
loved a pair of shoes that he could not afford and McLaren said he would give
him the shoes if he auditioned for the band. Malcolm was impressed when Rotten
sang Alice Cooper’s classic “I’m Eighteen,” Malcolm said, “he took the piss out
of it” and history was made.
The band becomes phenomenally popular overnight and jumped over the other punk
bands in terms of popularity because of a series of controversial publicity
stunts and disruptive accidental happenings. They became instantly notorious
when they appeared drunk and swore on the Bill Grundy show and grabbed all the
national headlines making many people under 20 love them. Another highlight in
the film depicts the Queen’s Jubilee incident in which the band followed the
Queen’s ship and sang songs against her and the British establishment until they
The last and most interesting part of the film depicts the band spiraling out of
control and inevitably breaking up. The cause for this was largely, the bass
player, Sid’s increasing uselessness due to his heroin addiction which caused
him to miss the recording session for their one album. Some scenes reveal much
about Sid’s masochistic tendencies. Sid starts a fight that he is bound to lose
with the much stronger Steve who eventually gets the better of him and pummels
him. When Jones shows surprised that Sid is pleased, he explains that he would
rather that people fight against him than ignore him. Sid’s junkie girlfriend,
Nancy even tells Steve, “Sid is only happy when someone is kicking the shit out
The film is more female friendly than most other punk films and does more to
bring out the importance of women like Vivienne West, Chrissie Hynde, and
Siouxsie Siouxsie in the early punk movement. It also provides a more
sympathetic view of Nancy Spungen who was depicted as highly disturbed, and
One of the biggest changes from the book to the novel is that Chrissie Hynde is
a major character in the film whereas she was a minor one in the novel. Hynde
was an employee at the Sex clothing shop and desperately wanted to be in one of
the emerging punk bands; she hung around and played with The Clash, Sex Pistols
and Damned. Although she played better than many of the musicians that ended up
in the punk groups, she ended up having to start her own band, the Pretenders
who were more financially successful than all the punk bands. The film implies
that that she was initially passed over because of sexism. There might be some
truth in this but it might also be because her style, look and attitude did not
mesh with the bands.
There is no one definitive version of the Sex Pistols story, but this film does
a reasonably good job of giving Jones’ perspective on the whole situation.
Lovers of rock history, and punk in particular, should get a bang out of Pistol.