‘Pistol’ miniseries captures the anarchy of the Sex Pistols
LONDON – “Are we spitting? asked a man in the crowd at the 100 Club, a small underground space with red walls, reminiscent of spilled beer, cigarette smoke and a thousand lost nights, just off Oxford Street in London.
Yes, there would be spitting. The club was the setting for the Sex Pistols’ debut gig, which was recreated last June for ‘Pistol’, a six-part series about the British band, directed by Danny Boyle and shown on Hulu in the US and Disney+ in other territories. , from May 31.
The Sex Pistols were the “philosophers and dress code” of the punk revolution, said Boyle, who seemed to be all over the set, talking to extras about crowd behavior, checking cameras and watching monitors intently while actors were performing the song “Bodies” and the audience went wild.
“I tried to do the show in a way that was chaotic and true to the Pistols manifesto,” Boyle said in a recent interview. This involved taking an experimental approach to filming: “We were just shooting entire scenes, entire performances, not knowing if we had captured the ‘right’ shot or not. That’s all you’ve been taught not to do.
Thomas Brodie-Sangster, who plays Malcolm McLaren, the band’s manager, with virtuoso panache, said Boyle’s approach was unlike anything he had experienced on set before. “You felt it could go wrong, but you could trust Danny and dive in and experiment – very Sex Pistols!”
The result is a charged, visceral, cubist portrait of the flamboyant rise and explosive fall of the Sex Pistols, whose brief existence from 1975 to 1978 made punk rock a global phenomenon and whose anarchic songs (“God Save the Queen”, “Pretty Vacant”) have become anthems for the malcontents.
The series, written by Craig Pearce, is based on the memoir “Tales of a Lonely Boy” by guitarist Steve Jones. But Boyle said that while Jones’ story was “a wonderful entry point”, he and Pearce had tried to paint a composite picture of the whole band and the world of the 70s from which it emerged. (The band originally included Jones, vocalist John Lydon, known as Johnny Rotten, drummer Paul Cook and Glen Matlock on bass, replaced in 1977 by Sid Vicious.)
The first episode opens with a montage of archival footage: The Queen politely waving to the crowd; a scene from the burlesque films “Carry On”; David Bowie performing; strikers and garbage piled up in the streets. When we meet Steve (Toby Wallace), he’s busy stealing sound equipment from a Bowie concert. (The singer‘s lipstick is still on the mic.)
Steve and his mates are angry, bored and “trying to put together enough for another pint”, he tells them as they discuss what their group should wear. “So, no costume?” asks the unfortunate Wally, who is quickly fired from the group.
“It’s hard to overestimate how moribund and moribund British society was for these guys,” said Pearce, who met Jones, Cook and other figures close to the band before writing most of the script. in his native Australia during the first months of the pandemic.
“The promise of the Swinging Sixties did not materialize; rock ‘n’ roll freedom hasn’t happened to most kids,” Pearce said. “There was a feeling that if you were born in a certain class, you couldn’t escape. You had to accept what was given to you.
Then, he said, came “this bunch of kids who said, you’re sleepwalking through life.”
Boyle, he added, has always been his “dream director” for the show. “We couldn’t believe it when he immediately said he wanted to do it.”
Turns out Boyle couldn’t believe it either. “I’m very musically driven, but I never imagined doing the Pistols,” he said. “I had followed John Lydon’s career closely, and the hostility he felt for others was no secret.” But after reading Pearce’s script, Boyle immediately said yes.
“Which was ridiculous,” he said with a laugh, “since I didn’t even know if we would have the music, the most important thing.”
Lydon objected to both the use of Sex Pistols music and the show itself, but ultimately lost his case when a judge ruled the terms of a band deal gave Cook and Jones a majority vote. Boyle said he tried to contact Lydon during the dispute. He added that he hoped the series would “reveal the genius and humility” of the leader.
Boyle said that although he did extensive reading and research, speaking to everyone he could find who had been involved with the band, he ultimately trusted his intuition to formulate an approach to the series.
“I grew up in a working environment similar to Steve and those guys,” he said. “We are exactly the same age and I am passionate about music. I had to explain to the actors what the 1970s were like; they just don’t realize how little stimulation there was, how you waited all week for the lifeline of the New Musical Express to appear on a Thursday!
Before filming began, the actors playing the band members spent two months at a “band camp,” with a daily routine of music lessons, vocal coaching, and movement practice. Sometimes Boyle would talk to them about the 70s and show them pictures. Then, led by Karl Hyde and Rick Smith of the British electronic music group Underworld, they will spend hours playing together.
Boyle said he mostly avoided recruiting trained musicians. “I didn’t want anyone to be locked into an expertise,” he said, adding that Jacob Slater, who plays Cook, was a great guitarist but had to learn drums.
He also decided not to do any post-production work on the music. “Like the Pistols, we just had to get up and, imperfect as we were, go for it,” said Sydney Chandler, who plays American singer Chrissie Hynde. Chandler’s character is one of many memorable women on the show, alongside creator Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley), Nancy Spungen (Emma Appleton), and punk icon Jordan (Maisie Williams).
As for the band members, “we didn’t want to be homages or caricatures,” said Anson Boon, who plays Lydon and, like his character, had never sung before. “The Pistols produced a wall of raw, angry sound and we wanted to capture that essence without trying to make an impression.”
Playing a character who is also a real person was daunting but fascinating, said Wallace, who spent time with Jones before filming began. “We talked a lot about his family and then he gave me the first guitar lesson I really had.”
The series shows Steve’s unhappy childhood, which Wallace considered essential to the “anger and frustration” of Jones, he said, and led him to create “a group that represents the unrepresented .
Working on the series, Boyle said, had made him realize the importance of the Pistols beyond the music. “They were a bunch of working-class guys who broke the order of things, more than the Beatles did,” he said. “It was particularly resonant in the UK, where the way you were expected to behave was so ingrained.”
The Pistols, he added, gave their fans permission to do whatever they wanted, to waste their time however they wanted, to shape their own lives in a unique way.
“They gave meaning to the goallessness,” he said.