Pistol review: A Danny Boyle masterclass that's almost chaotic enough
The series may not quite get to the heart of the Sex Pistols' lasting appeal, but it's a definitive statement by director Danny Boyle.
In a recent interview with RadioTimes.com for new Disney Plus series Pistol, Talulah Riley who plays Vivienne Westwood acknowledged that "the thing about Danny is all his films are so varied, you kind of don't know what's gonna happen, you just know it's gonna be genius".
She's completely right of course. Boyle's career has at times been exhilarating, at others baffling, as he's worked his way through genre and style like he's choosing projects through a randomiser. A mostly real-time drama following a man whose arm is stuck between two rocks? Sounds great. A Richard Curtis Beatles rom-com with an extended Ed Sheeran cameo, to the point where he's almost one of the core cast? Sure, let's go for it.
It's interesting then that he should now, in many ways, return to his routes. Pistol is the closest the director has ever gotten to revisiting his Trainspotting aesthetic and tone, even closer than with that film's own sequel.
It makes sense, given the series' subject matter. It is, after all, an anarchic ride through the history of one of the most controversial British bands of all time, and perhaps more importantly, an exploration of the UK's punk movement and culture.
Based on Steve Jones' book Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol, the series follows Steve as his humble rock band is transformed by boutique owner and manager/promoter Malcolm McLaren to become a weapon against convention and polite society. When McLaren brings John Lydon AKA Johnny Rotten on board, the group's dynamics are turned on their axis, as these angry young men are pitted against themselves, but also against the whole of the British establishment.
Meanwhile, in exploring the punk movement and real-life icons who fell into the band's orbit, the series also factors in figures including Vivienne Westwood, Pamela Rooke AKA Jordan and Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders.
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The only real issue with the series is that it's perhaps not anarchic enough. It could be a drawback of the form - packed into a two-hour film, this story would be utterly frenetic, but potentially lacking in heart. As it is, in a six-hour series, the characters are all throughly fleshed out and their emotional arcs are clear - it's just that at times, when the pace slows, you wish it retained some of the blemishes, imperfections and narrative oomph that made Trainspotting such a chaotic thrill.
It's a minor quibble though, as all-told the show is a stylish, informative and highly entertaining series that packs a punch and is remarkably binge-able. It features an exceptionally well-put together cast, with an ensemble made up of young stars such as Maisie Williams and Thomas Brodie-Sangster alongside talented newcomers. All of the core group are impressive in their roles, but the clear stand-outs are Anson Boon as John Lydon and Sydney Chandler as Chrissie Hynde.
Chandler's Chrissie is the heart of the series, and not only does she fulfil that role, but she almost steals the entire thing. There's a point at which Toby Wallace's Steve tells her she's too talented to be a member of the Sex Pistols, and you can't help but feel that extends to Chandler's role in the series - it's a sizeable supporting role, but you wish there was more space for her to play. Perhaps if Boyle gets a taste for music biopic series, then he'll give Chandler her due in a full-blown Pretenders series.
Meanwhile, Boon just embodies John Lydon. The real Lydon will most likely take umbrage with the performance, and who's to say how accurate it is to the man behind closed doors. But as a recreation of his public persona, his mannerisms and his spirit, it's utterly spot on. You at times want to look away as he stares his bandmates down or performs an excruciating audition, but no matter how much you try you just can't (kind of like with the man himself).
What Lydon will think of the series as a whole remains to be seen, but based on his previous comments, it's unlikely to be positive. I can't imagine there's much in here that will change his clearly already made up mind - he is undoubtedly portrayed as the creative genius of the group, but also an erratic, mopey oddball. Boon's skill lies in still making him recognisably human despite all this, and at times utterly empathetic.
Of course, you have to remember we're seeing these events as they are remembered by Steve Jones, who it's fair to say based on this had a less than amiable relationship with Lydon. Boyle has explained that Jones' book offered him a way into the story, rather than focusing it on the "unmanageable" Lydon, and it's clear throughout that we're seeing a specific and personal version of events.
For instance, Brodie-Sangster's Malcolm shifts and turns depending on his relationship with Steve - at the start he's an enigmatic, middle-class saviour, by the end he's a manipulative, semi-deranged villain. Meanwhile, the death of Sid Vicious' girlfriend Nancy Spungen, a mystery which to this day remains unsolved, is not fully explained but is given some fairly definitive answers here based on Steve's understanding of events.
However, in a larger sense this isn't just Jones' perspective on the Sex Pistols. It isn't even screenwriter Craig Pearce's perspective. It's Boyle's through and through, a traditionally paced story told through a punk lens and with the director's love for the band and the era writ large upon the screen.
No matter how many speeches Malcolm makes about shaking up and breaking down the establishment Malcolm makes, the series never quite gets to why the Pistols were so influential, or how the punk era managed to capture the British working class imagination beyond a desire to puncture taboos.
Because perhaps that's how we make sense of the director's seemingly fractured career. Whether he's unpacking the lasting legacy of The Beatles, examining steely Apple founder Steve Jobs or showing us the lives of Edinburgh's heroine addicts, it's all about Boyle's own unbridled passion for his subjects.
We may not know why the Sex Pistols had such an impact but we do feel it. Because Boyle feels it. And if the past 30 years are anything to go by, sharing in his passion will always make for quite the ride.
Pistol is set to premiere on Disney Plus in the UK on 31st May 2022. You can sign up to Disney Plus for £7.99 a month or £79.90 a year now.
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