Energizing, explosive content with intense form, Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle brings scuzzy verve to Pistol, FX’s miniseries (May 31) about the blitzkrieg rise and fall of Britain’s iconic punks, the Sex Pistols. Shot and edited with pedal-to-the-metal speed and face-punching ferocity, this six-part endeavor about the four-piece’s 1970s heyday captivatingly conveys the band’s rebellious aim to upend the status quo and spit in the face of the establishment—both literally and figuratively. Revisiting an era and a movement marked by a combination of radical dissent and callous opportunism, it’s a multifaceted snapshot of the anarchy that the Pistols wrought first in the U.K., and then throughout the world.
Created and written by Baz Luhrmann’s favorite screenwriter Craig Pearce, Pistol is coated by Boyle in a sheen of ’70s grunge and injected with an attitude to match, his style all jagged juxtapositions, spikey montages, off-kilter visual compositions, buzzsaw pacing, and whiplash cutaways to flashbacks (often in order to silently comment on the action proper). There’s electric flair to Boyle’s stewardship, and it’s always in tune with the material at hand, which—as befitting a project based on Steve Jones’ memoir Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol—pivots around Jones (a charismatic Toby Wallace), who’s first introduced sneaking into the Hammersmith Odeon to pilfer David Bowie’s gear. Shortly thereafter, he falls in with Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley) and Malcolm McLaren (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) at the couple’s downtown SEX store, whose sole other employee is a young Chrissie Hynde (Sydney Chandler), future leader of The Pretenders. Jones is a thief with frontman dreams, and his brazenness strikes a chord with McLaren, who—fresh off a stint managing The New York Dolls—views Jones as a potential vessel via which he can riotously shake up the British music industry and sociopolitical landscape.
Though originally dubbed The Swankers and, then, QT Jones and the Sex Pistols, Jones’ band—rounded out by drummer Paul Cook (Jacob Slater) and bassist Glen Matlock (Christian Lees)—hits the skids when Jones flees his maiden gig due to nerves rooted in his miserable childhood with a horrid stepfather and callous mother. Ever the indefatigable entrepreneur, McLaren pivots by hiring John Lydon (Anson Boon) to be the band’s new singer, and the soon-to-be Mr. Rotten swiftly abbreviates the group’s name and gives it a dose of unbridled volatility. Jones, meanwhile, is ordered to learn the guitar, a feat he accomplishes during a five-day speed-fueled bender. Pistol itself moves as if it were on amphetamines, and before long, takes its act on the road alongside its protagonists, whose early shows are met with enthusiasm from against-the-grain kids and disgust from just about everyone else, be it aspiring bands or the media who look aghast at the antics of these rude, filthy rabble-rousers.
Wallace, Boon and the rest are more than up to the challenge of authentically recreating the Pistols’ music and performances, here filmed by Boyle with raggedy fervor. Rapid-fire images of the Queen, trash-lined streets and working-class faces provide context for the Sex Pistols’ fury, which targets anything accepted as normal, proper, and good. Bassist Matlock’s fondness for the Beatles is an early sticking point with Lydon, who’s played by Boon with a furrowed-brow sneer and live-wire mania that’s startlingly convincing. His Lydon wants to torch everything to the ground, and that puts him in harmony with McLaren, who’s simultaneously embraced by Jones as a surrogate father figure capable of both supporting him (early on, he gets him out of a prison sentence) and guiding him on his mission to upend the natural order of things.
Psychologizing is ever-present in Pistol, albeit never through ponderous exposition; Pearce’s scripts are gnarly hit-and-run affairs that address their underlying ideas by smashing characters into each other. Tensions within the band are a prime focal point, as is the budding relationship between Jones and Hynde, the latter of whom becomes the nascent rocker’s guitar teacher as well as occasional lover. Hynde’s own desire for center stage, and frustration with the punk scene’s disinterest in including women in its revolt, additionally sneaks its way into the mix. So too, eventually, does the Sex Pistols’ incendiary single “God Save the Queen,” their legendary album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, and of course Sid Vicious (Louis Partridge), Lydon’s long-time mate, whose musical incompetence is overshadowed by his embodiment of the punk spirit—or, at least, so he claims while falling into a toxic romance with American groupie and junkie Nancy Spungen (Emma Appleton).
Sid and Nancy’s downfall has already received an unforgettable feature-film treatment (1986’s Gary Oldman-headlined Sid & Nancy) and Pistol revisits their heroin-instigated demise within the larger disintegration of the Sex Pistols, who are undone by personal rivalries and the nefarious manipulations of McLaren. Pearce and Boyle seem to believe the self-aggrandizing story McLaren told about himself in 1980’s The Great Rock ‘'n’ Roll Swindle—namely, that he was the shrewd mastermind behind the group. Yet they also complicate it by presenting the manager as a profiteer who stabbed his friends in the back and, for all his base and cynical motives, gave birth to a legitimately seditious outfit even he couldn’t control. McLaren comes off the worst in the series, although there’s plenty of ugliness to go around, with Jones and Lydon sharing some of the blame for the friction that inevitably led to the Sex Pistols’ collapse in the wake of Vicious’ murder rap and overdose death.
Pistol closes with a 1977 Christmas Day show that finds the band at its peak, both internally and sonically, thereby ending on a happy note that suggests all the turmoil was—for a brief, shining moment—worth the chaotic insanity. Given their obliterate-everything ethos, the fact that the Sex Pistols crashed and burned almost as quickly as they ascended to the pop-culture apex is perfectly fitting, and Pearce and Boyle don’t bother striving to make a grander case for the band’s importance—both then or in the decades that followed, when their influence spread far and wide. Theirs is a portrait of a battering-ram phenomenon that was successfully designed to destroy, and whether one likes the Sex Pistols or not, Pistol captures their insurgency with exuberant personality, formal ingenuity, and raw power.