Johnny Rotten has dismissed Disney’s six-part drama series about the rise and fall of the Sex Pistols as a “middle-class fantasy” that would be “funny if it wasn’t so tragic”. Having seen the first two episodes of Pistol, it is hard not to conclude his assessment might actually be generous.
In an effort to create a high-energy, highly-stylised drama around the gritty origin story of punk rock, filmmaker Danny Boyle throws everything at the screen – and winds up with a scattershot dog’s dinner that can’t decide if it wants to be social history, showbiz comedy or an all-snarling-and-pogoing punked-up version of The Kids from Fame.
Constantly hard-cutting between judiciously chosen documentary news footage with snatches of Seventies pop-culture musical and film references and a punchily scripted melodrama presented with a luridly overloaded sense of production period detail, Boyle somehow achieves the opposite of authenticity, winding up with something comically ludicrous that keeps drawing attention to its own artifice.
Despite plentiful shots of a kind of bombsite Britain paralysed by garbage strikes with fascistic policemen tackling misguided rebel youths with truncheons, the production feels about as threatening as an assault by a mugger armed with a water pistol.
It doesn’t help that Craig Pearce and Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s script is so tritely blunt, with characters constantly iterating famous quotes from Sex Pistols history or baldly stating things a subtler script might be confident enough to imply. It is dialogue as crassly obvious character development. “You’re that mouthy kid who’s always trying to steal things,” is how guitarist Steve Jones is announced by SEX shop assistant (and future Pretender) Chrissie Hynde (a sultry Sydney Chandler).
“You’re a product of state oppression, juvenile depression,” insists manager Malcolm McLaren, camped up by the baby-faced Thomas Brodie-Sangster as a kind of ludicrously Dickensian theatre-school impresario who somehow looks younger than the actors playing his untutored young band. It doesn’t help that McLaren is forced to talk in slogans: “I don’t want to f--- you, I want to f--- the world!” “I’m going to toss this boring grey country with its corrupt establishment right on to its inbred self-important arse! Who wants to toss with me?”
“Tear into each other like the seditionary sewer rats that you are,” Malcolm tells his punk protégés. “I want to hear the fury of the forgotten generation. A generation with no future, a generation with no other aim but to destroy.”
I might say pass the sick bag, but I’d be afraid of how much colour and detail Pistol’s production designers might try to cram into it.
Pistol is based on Steve Jones’s memoir Lonely Boy, which is a big problem in terms of narrative, since the only person on planet earth who considers Jones to be the key member of the Sex Pistols is Jones himself. Johnny Rotten doesn’t make an appearance until the closing shots of episode one, when the camera approaches actor Anson Boon in the kind of moodily lit, ominous slow-motion track usually reserved for the big reveal shot of the serial killer in a cheap American horror movie.
Episode two (entitled “Rotten”) lets Boon sink his prosthetically degraded teeth into the role, and he has some fun with it, capturing Rotten’s oddly inflected speech rhythms, and some of his vulnerability and incipient rage, yet with little sense of the mischievous glee and fierce intelligence that powered the Pistols. Like McLaren’s character, he is forced to talk in press releases: “No future for John is it? God save Johnny!” “I only sing out of tune!” “The rats are so noisy we wouldn’t have been able to hear each other.”
Maisie Williams (late of Game of Thrones) makes a strong impression in the minor role of Jordan, wearing a see-through coat and somehow delivering lines like “Being seen is a political act” and “this is a vulva-powered revolution” as if it was something an actual human being might say. Yet casting becomes a more problematic issue with characters whose identities are so imprinted via music videos and documentaries, so that the key relationship of McLaren and Rotten feels like a routine between two impressionists.
The worst thing about Pistol, though, is the uneven tone. It’s caught between the very different dynamics of an in-your-face punk assault on TV convention, an accurate historical account of a moment in pop history or an winkingly entertaining showbiz comedy about how to make it in the music business. Pistol comes on fully loaded but ends up firing blanks.
Pistol is available on Disney+ on Tuesday May 31