Where there’s a Jubilee, the Sex Pistols are rarely far behind, spitting and sneering for the benefit of anyone who doesn’t feel like hoisting a Union Jack next weekend. In this 70th year of Her Majesty’s reign, that of course means reissuing both versions of the endlessly controversial God Save the Queen single on vinyl. More interesting is a new look for the old band, played by unknown actors in the six-part Disney+ biopic Pistol. It’s Danny Boyle’s first major TV project but looks like familiar territory for the Trainspotting director, plunging into another sordid world of hard drugs, loud music and excessive bodily fluids.
On the other hand, the bloody, druggy violence of Pistol, which had its premiere in London last night, couldn’t be further from Boyle’s last work, chirpy Beatles romcom fantasy Yesterday. He’s definitely versatile. The last time he featured the Queen in a project, she was skydiving into the Olympic Stadium with James Bond at the London 2012 opening ceremony. Here she’s presiding over a less-than-Great Britain of National Front marches, brutal police and bin bags piled high in the streets, shown in grainy documentary footage woven through the drama.
Ever-cantankerous John Lydon, who has written two autobiographies, isn’t happy about this reopening of old wounds. The former Johnny Rotten, now 66, fought drummer Paul Cook and guitarist Steve Jones in court to prevent the use of Sex Pistols songs in the series, and lost. He said after the case was decided last summer: “I fear that the whole project might be extremely negative. How can anyone think that this can proceed without consulting me and deal with my personal life in this, and my issues in this, without any meaningful contact with me before the project is announced to the world.”
Boyle’s version goes: “John complains we didn’t approach him. We did approach him, and I would have loved to have him involved, but you’re never going to in a million years.”
And it is a negative story, as anyone with the briefest acquaintance with the key moments of the Pistols’ one album flameout already knows. After proving incapable of playing any gig without inciting a riot, the rotten tale ends with Lydon asking their final concert crowd: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” and with inept bassist Sid Vicious dying of a drug overdose while awaiting trial accused of murdering his girlfriend. Manager Malcolm McLaren, played with verbose glee by Thomas Brodie-Sangster from The Queen’s Gambit, shoves the band blindly from one mess to another, turns the world against them and them against each other, and delights in the endless disorder he sows.
However, though it ticks off the most famous moments – presenter Bill Grundy goading the band into calling him a “f**king rotter” on teatime telly, the gig on the Thames cruiser that ended in mass arrests, John Ritchie getting the stage name Sid Vicious after being bitten by Lydon’s pet hamster Sid – this isn’t quite the story many will be expecting. Who would have thought that the main characters in a Sex Pistols biopic would be the guitarist Steve Jones and The Pretenders frontwoman Chrissie Hynde?
That’s mostly because this version of the tale is based on Jones’s 2017 autobiography, Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol. Although he ends the series finding out what heroin is like if you inject it instead of snorting it, he comes out of Pistol as well as a sexually voracious illiterate kleptomaniac can, played with geezerish charm by Australian actor Toby Wallace. He’s the one who formed the band (first as The Swankers, then QT Jones & His Sex Pistols), he appears here to be the one who cares the most about their success, and his abusive stepfather gets the overall blame for his worst decisions.
Hynde, who is only briefly mentioned in Jon Savage’s classic book about the era, England’s Dreaming, here has her role expanded into one of the few genuinely likeable people in punk. Played by Sydney Chandler, she was a music-obsessed escapee from Akron, Ohio who was in the thick of it as a sometime NME journalist and employee at McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s SEX boutique, desperate to join a rock band. Her attempt to marry any Sex Pistol in a bid to be allowed to remain in the country may look cynical, but her casual relationship with Jones, who is drawn to her as the only technically gifted musician in his vicinity, looks sweet and wholesome next to the destructive filth of Vicious (Louis Partridge) and another American, Nancy Spungen (Emma Appleton).
Lydon will no doubt hate his portrayal but it looks about right to a more casual observer. Anson Boon as Johnny Rotten is all pop-eyes and sarcasm, burning with hatred for everything within a 10-mile radius. He can’t bear McLaren and has near constant scorn for the rest of the group, who he starts referring to as “the backing band”. He tortures poor Glen Matlock (Christian Lees), whose crimes appear to be having some musical ability, dressing less cool and admiring The Beatles. He wants Matlock out and his schoolfriend Vicious in, who’s a mostly faithful ally but also can’t play the bass, is in constant search of heroin and self-harms on stage.
The story is violent but fairly funny until Vicious enters the picture and the band’s world darkens to a horrid murk. While the others aren’t exactly balanced individuals (though Jacob Slater as drummer Paul Cook is shown to have a loving, supportive family) Vicious is troubled beyond belief, only happy when he’s being beaten up as it means someone has noticed him.
The grim realities of his 21 years mean that Pistol has some issues with tone. At times it feels like a Carry On caper in which gobby underdogs briefly triumph against the boring system. But there’s no escaping the fact that here is a man who was sent on a disastrous American tour when he desperately needed professional help, not a microphone.
Pistol makes a good attempt at a happy ending by harking back to the band’s last UK gig, a Christmas Day benefit for the children of striking firefighters in Huddersfield. But as the ongoing animostity between the group’s members shows, it’s hard to find happiness near the Sex Pistols. Jones said in their first interview: “We’re not into music. We’re into chaos.” It makes for a story that is uneven, confusing and exhausting, but never boring.
All six episodes of Pistol are streaming on Disney+ from May 31