The details have a strange way of warping when it comes to music mythology. Firmly embroidered into the tapestry of UK punk, the Sex Pistols might’ve only released one classic record before falling to pieces completely, but today their mere two-and-a-half years together as a band hardly matters.
Springing out of the burgeoning scene of nihilist teenagers who visited Vivienne Westwood’s fetish-wear SEX boutique on the Kings Road in the mid-70s, the band formed amid a huge recession, with unemployment and poverty at high levels and heaps of rancid, uncollected bin bags lining London’s streets. After swiftly being taken under the wing of Westwood’s then-partner Malcolm McLaren, four of the shop’s customers became the Sex Pistols, seemingly sparking provocation and moral panic wherever they went.
As fast-paced and scrappy as a hastily photocopied ‘zine, Pistol – the Danny Boyle-directed six-part mini-series dramatising the rapid rise and fall of one of the UK’s first and most influential punk bands – makes sense of this story by matching the energy of its source material. Slow-motion analogue shots, freeze-frames, gaudy dreamscapes, flashbacks, archive footage and split-screen editing all jostle for space here.
Its fidgety style takes some getting used to, meaning that Pistol veers between providing raucous comedy and moments of real poignancy. The latter is a particularly interesting prospect, unearthing several deeper threads – including the side-lining of women in the punk scene (such as future Pretenders vocalist Chrissie Hynde) and rock’n’roll’s often dangerous tendency towards hagiography – in the process.
Sex Pistols founder and guitarist Steve Jones (played here by Babyteeth’s Toby Wallace in a standout performance) develops the most depth and complexity as a character; admittedly, it’s probably because the show is based on his memoir Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol. Anson Boon delivers a compelling performance as the Pistols’ fire-blazing frontman Johnny Rotten despite having less source material than Wallace to draw on, though the flamboyant portrayals of the Pistols’ charismatic manager McLaren (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Sid Vicious (Louis Partridge) aren’t as convincing.
Pistol could’ve gone further – as much as it explores the pitfalls of rock’n’roll mythology, it occasionally falls into the very same trappings that it tries to scrutinise. But, taken at face value, this is a high-energy and creatively pieced-together look back on how punk rock, with Sex Pistols at the vanguard, swept the UK and beyond.
‘Pistol’ is streaming on Disney+ now