Early in Pistol, the FX-produced six-part miniseries about the thrilling rise and ugly fall of seminal English punk act the Sex Pistols, the band and their friends gather in their makeshift rehearsal space for a raucous party. Grandiose manager Malcolm McLaren (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) proclaims to guitar player Steve Jones (Toby Wallace) that they are witnessing the birth of a new movement. A skeptical Jones, noting that the revelers are belting out the innocuous pop hit “Shang-A-Lang,” wonders if a rebellion can be accompanied by a Bay City Rollers soundtrack.
This battle between revolution and convention is the central tension within and without Pistol, directed by Danny Boyle. The Pistols channeled the rage they felt about being left behind in the crumbling wreckage of the British empire to strip rock music back down to its rebellious roots, built something new and dangerous atop it, and managed to record one great album before self-destructing. (“God Save the Queen” still slaps.) With its rapidly-shifting visual style and other Boyle-ish flourishes, Pistol clearly aspires to bring some of the same anarchy to the calcified state of the modern prestige TV drama. But it’s otherwise yet another cliche-ridden musical biopic that fails to transcend its genre in a way that Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols did with its own.
Writer Craig Pearce is adapting Jones’ memoir Lonely Boy: Tales From a Sex Pistol, so unsurprisingly, the show positions Jones as the flawed but endearing hero of our story: A glam rock fan who stumbled into punk through knowing McLaren and fashion trailblazers Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley) and Jordan (Maisie Williams, wearing one outfit after another that would utterly flummox Arya Stark). He then taught himself guitar over the skepticism of more accomplished pal Chrissie Hynde (Sydney Chandler), and held the Pistols together as long as possible despite the shit-stirring personality of frontman Johnny Rotten (Anson Boon) and the self-destructive streak of bassist Sid Vicious (Louis Partridge). Wallace is a compelling leading man, but Jones feels like too traditional an entry point for this saga. (The real Johnny Rotten, a.k.a. John Lydon, has disavowed the whole project, and took Jones and drummer Paul Cook to court over it.)
There are moments that work beautifully: the Pistols playing well together for the first time, or Cook (Jacob Slater) changing the “Anarchy in the U.K.” beat until it resembles the defiant anthem we know. But versions of them exist in half of the real- and fictional-band biopics ever made. (Cook saving “Anarchy” is basically the same as the inciting incident of That Thing You Do!) And even details drawn directly from real life — the former John Simon Ritchie gets the Sid Vicious nickname after being bitten by Rotten’s pet hamster Sid — play extremely corny here. (Actual line of dialogue in this scene, referring to the hamster: “Sid’s really vicious!”)
Boyle’s directorial gifts are on full display, and the actors go beyond mere impressions of punk legends, so the cliched nature of Pistol is disappointing but not completely crippling. Still, the show seems overdone in the same manner as the hard and prog rock bands of the era that the Pistols were rebelling against, with a story that moves at a leisurely pace for five hours and then races through the band’s disastrous American tour, the tragic fates of Sid and girlfriend Nancy Spungen (Emma Appleton), and too much else in the final episode. It’s as if Pearce and Boyle are reluctant to spend too much time revisiting the material covered in Sid and Nancy, the classic 1986 movie that had an unrelenting spirit and tone that Pistol could frankly use more of.
The Sex Pistols were a band born out of anger; Pistol is a show made with love. That’s an awkward combination.
All six episodes of Pistol are now streaming on Hulu. I’ve seen the whole thing.