A well told story: Kerry McCarthy reviews 'Pistol'
Despite John Lydon’s vociferous opposition to the project, Danny Boyle’s six-part drama charting the rise of the Sex Pistols is actually pretty good
John Lydon, the artist formerly known as Johnny Rotten, has been vocal – and litigious – in his opposition to Danny Boyle’s Pistol. He’s been touring the UK with his post-Pistols band PiL and sounding off onstage every night, making clear his immense displeasure. In fact he was playing Bristol and I was half-tempted to go along but having seen PiL in the 1980s when they were at their peak – and the Sex Pistols at their 2002 Golden Jubilee gig at Crystal Palace when they most certainly weren’t at theirs – I decided against and settled down to binge-watch all six episodes instead.
I don’t know why Lydon was so opposed to it. It’s really pretty good, and he comes out of it pretty well. He’s played by Anson Boon, who wisely doesn’t attempt a fully-fledged impersonation but still captures the essence of Rotten, especially his idiosyncratic intonation and his intense stare. Louis Partridge does likewise as Sid Vicious and Thomas Brodie-Sangster (the little boy from Love Actually) is totally brilliant as Malcolm McLaren.
Rotten’s Catholic working-class morality also comes across strongly, in his objections to Vivienne Westwood’s use of swastikas in her designs and when Malcolm relays his “fun” idea to take the Pistols to Brazil to hang out with a Great Train Robber: “Ronnie Biggs… Bashed a train driver, a decent working man and left him brain-damaged for life. There’s nothing fun about it.”
The drama is based on Lonely Boy, the autobiography of the Sex Pistols’ guitarist, Steve Jones. I’m not sure they quite nailed the mixture of laddishness and vulnerability they were aiming for with his character, although the focus on him does lend a new element to what is otherwise a very well-told story. He spends a lot of time with Chrissie Hynde, who worked for a while in “Sex,” Westwood’s boutique on King’s Road. I don’t think she was as central to the punk scene as she’s made out to be, but it’s clear from the offset that we can expect some artistic licence in the storytelling. I’d like to think the scene in the warehouse where the punks all start dancing to Shang-A-Lang by the Bay City Rollers was true to life though!
Thomas Brodie-Sangster (the little boy from Love Actually) is totally brilliant as Malcolm McLaren
Too often when real life events are dramatised, the makers shoehorn in clumsy explanations for the audience. Pistol isn’t entirely immune – when Steve Jones shows off a guitar Malcolm has given him, saying it used to belong to Sylvain Sylvain, Hynde replies “from the New York Dolls?” – but manages for the most part to avoid it. So we see Siouxsie singing the Lord’s Prayer at the Banshees first gig, Julien Temple filming, Jamie Reid roped in to do the artwork, and many other classic punk reference points, including use of original 1970s footage, but it’s handled with a light touch.
I was left pondering whether we’ll ever see such a cultural moment again. I’m not sure any band would get away with being so provocative, that their anger would hit the right nerves or that their humour would be appreciated. And, with the Queen now appearing in skits with Paddington Bear, I think “God Save the Queen” has had its day.
Kerry McCarthy is Labour MP for Bristol East
Directed by: Danny Boyle
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