by Amaris Pollinger
When I first heard about Pistol (2022), I rolled my eyes. “Here we go again,” I thought, “another failed attempt at telling the Sex Pistols story.” You can’t really blame me here. After all, Sid and Nancy (1986) was an absolute train wreck of a film. Besides a few documentaries, the Sex Pistols story has been a complete disaster in the hands of filmmakers. Thankfully, I’m the kind of person that’s willing to accept when I’m wrong. And FX has certainly made me eat crow. Based on the autobiography Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol, by founding member/guitarist Steve Jones, the punk rock drama, Pistol (2022) is everything and more.
The formation of the Sex Pistols has been repeatedly mythologized in media. Contrary to popular belief, it was neither a Malcolm McLaren art concept nor a John Lydon manifesto. With Pistol (2022), director Danny Boyle focuses on anything but the “filth and the fury.” And as much as I love John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten), this is not that story and it’s refreshing.
Instead, Pistol (2022) is seen through the eyes of Steve Jones (Toby Wallace). To escape a life of hard knocks and thieving, a teenage Jones starts a band called The Swankers (which, as everyone points out, sounds like “Wankers”). Initially, Jones intended to sing and play guitar, but this falls through thanks in part to his illiteracy which he desperately tries to hide.
At this point, Malcolm McLaren (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), steps in. McLaren becomes a father figure to Jones, which leads to McLaren’s inevitable role as band manager and mass manipulator. He suggests that Jones play guitar and that they find a wordsmith and singer in one. McLaren sets up auditions, specifically for a fashionable-antifashion “street poet” named John Lydon (Anson Boon) spotted in and around SEX, the shop McLaren runs with lover/business partner, Vivianne Westwood (Talulah Riley).
If Lydon agrees to the audition, McLaren promises to deliver a free pair of white brothel creepers. Lydon is a terrible singer, but just so…and thus the Sex Pistols as we know them, are born. What no one realized at the time is that, according to Westwood, McLaren approached “the wrong John.” Westwood was referring to Lydon’s mate, John Simon ‘Ritchie’ Beverley later known as Sid Vicious—and a member of a group of friends all named John (“The Johns”). Fate intervenes and gives the world Johnny Rotten instead. Although, if McLaren were alive today, he’d probably say he chose John Lydon instead of Beverly on purpose…but I digress.
And sure, maybe none of the actors in Pistol (2022) look vaguely like their real-life counterparts in the 1970s—but they make up for that in their acting. Toby Wallace gives Steve Jones a heartwrenching voice on screen. Cinematically, we see Jones in a new light and we feel for him as the scenes pan between memory, hallucination, pain, and drunkenness.
Likewise, Anson Boon as John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) is incredible. Boon captures Lydon’s unapologetic wit, intelligence, and humor but most of all, Lydon’s humanity. It is easy for those not in the know to paint Lydon as nasty as his infamous stage name—but the guy is much more of a softie than he’d probably like to admit. (Sidenote: has anyone else seen the episode of The Masked Singer he did just to cheer up his wife who is suffering from dementia? See? Softie).
One of the highlights of Pistol (2022) is when John Beverly, aka Sid Vicious (Louis Partridge), finally fulfills his dream of being a Sex Pistol, the focus does not shift to the heroin-Nancy-doomed lovers rock and roll story. For once, the infamous Vicious is part of the backdrop, but that isn’t to say he isn’t vital. What we see is a very naïve, sweet kid who cared more about getting his hair to stand up B.N. (Before Nancy). Speaking of Nancy Spungen (Emma Appleton) …well is it too easy and trendy to hate her?
The best episode of the series is “Bodies,” and while the show continues in a fantastic display of chaos and color; the storytelling feels a bit flat after this. It’s as if Boyle were rushing to tell the Sex Pistol’s story, but did not want to linger very long. However, it’s still enjoyable to watch. “Bodies” captures the band’s empathy better than any other episode by showing the vulnerability of the band members. We are submerged in truth, darkness, and a depth that is behind the kicking, screaming, bleeding foul-mouthed yobs.
Pauline (Bianca Stephens), the subject of “Bodies” has been stalking Lydon. When he finally confronts her outside his home, Lydon invites her inside and out of the rain. In his mum’s kitchen, Pauline willingly tells Lydon about her story of “disgrace”, madness, rape, and abortion…and how she’s been carrying the fetus with her in a handbag.
After listening quietly, Lydon suggests that she give it a “proper burial.” As Pauline leaves, Lydon, clearly moved by the horrors that a corrupt British society has inflicted on its people; offers Pauline his coat before she disappears out into the rain. How true this back story of “Bodies” is is not clear— (did Rotten actually invite Pauline into his house and give her his coat? IDFK) as Steve Jones does not relate the full details of Pauline in his autobiography.
The song “Bodies,” sounds aggressively spiteful towards Pauline, but I doubt it is. What the episode does is highlight a heartbreaking story of one of the lost souls of 1970s England. Despite falling off a bit after this, Pistol (2022) is nearly flawless. The series tells a story about kids who needed an outlet and, falling well below the poverty line, they did what they could to change their lives and subsequently, the world. They had nothing and nowhere to vent their frustration outside of music. And the world has never been the same.
The economy is always responsible for what happens creatively; punk happened because England had finally combusted after decades of disharmony and lack of opportunity for its people in the aftermath of WWII. And the youth of the 1970s were sick of it. The lesson here is that if you can’t fight society with money and influence, get off your ass and do what you can. You are never trapped, there is always a way out…if you see no way out, make one. And if you’re truly lost, start a fucking band.
Cover Photo by Miya Mizuno, courtesy of Rebecca Brenneman/FX.