Disney and the Sex Pistols are words that don’t go together very well. Mickey’s firm married to England’s most rabid and controversial band in the late 70s is a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron. It is however on Disney + that arrives this Wednesday Pistolthe mini series written by Craig Pearce (screenwriter of Elvis by Baz Luhrmann) and directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionnaire) on the explosive punk band that made rock history.
The six episodes are based for the most part on the memoirs of Steve Jones (Lonely Boy, Ma vie de Sex Pistols, 2016), guitarist and founder of the band. It is therefore his vision that is privileged, that of a broken proletarian teenager, a fan of Bowie, who does not know how to hold a guitar any more than a microphone, and than the ambitious Malcolm McLaren, owner with his stylist companion. Vivienne Westwood of a fashion boutique in London, is going to get it into her head to propel a seditious group supposed to represent “the fury of the forgotten generation“in the mid 70’s.
The singer and natural leader of the Sex Pistols John Lydon, alias Johnny Rotten, who claims to have been neither consulted nor warned before the official announcement of the series project, obviously did not appreciate. To the point of having dragged his associates to justice to ban the series and the use of the group’s music. In vain. “Disney stole the past and created a fairy tale that bears little resemblance to the truth“, he judged in view of the trailer.
We can understand that Johnny Rotten does not find himself there. Anson Boon, who portrays the singer in Pistol, is not a bad actor. But he is misdirected here. This is the first thing that bothered us in this series. Johnny Rotten was an outraged and scathing character, but here he is a caricature without an ounce of humor constantly casting around him a hard, irascible and closed look (except in the last episode where he seems to breathe a little), that everyone everyone hates. He would have deserved more nuances than this egocentric with bulging eyes in which anger and defiance constantly shine (which he actually was on stage): it’s inhuman, and therefore closer to a cartoon character. One point for the real John Lydon.
Les vrais Sex Pistols “Anarchy in the UK”
The Sex Pistols have only committed one album, the incendiary Never Mind The Bollocks (1977), but they lit the British punk fuse (punk was born in the United States a little earlier) and turned the table around for good. They barely lasted three years, but their furious epic supposed to dynamite society was intense – provocations, banishments, excesses and slippages of all kinds, personnel changes, label changes, violent deaths (Sid Vicious and his partner Nancy Spungen) .
To tell this explosive story, we would have liked a more daring bias than this chronological narration and plan plan, almost academic, certainly rather consistent with the facts, but purring, especially for spectators familiar with the high feats of arms of the group. Often misses the spark.
With small touches, the series testifies to the sexism with regard to women in the punk movement: Chrissie Hynde (future Pretenders) rejected by Mick Jones (future Clash) and never taken into account despite her talents as a guitarist, author and composer, but also Vivienne Westwood coldly noting how much her companion Malcolm McLaren vampirizes his most subversive ideas. That’s a good point, but we would have liked to see more of the flamboyant women of the movement, from Siouxsie Sioux to Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex for example, rather than an episode (the third) almost entirely devoted to the mentally disturbed who inspired John Lydon the song Bodies.
However, the beginning of the second episode, which recalls the courageous gesture of a punk pioneer to denounce the hypocrisy of the corseted society of the time, compensates in part. It shows young Jordan, aka Pamela Rooke, (played by the impeccable Maisie Williams seen in Game of Thrones) traveling from her suburbs by bicycle and then by train to her workplace in the heart of London, wearing a transparent vinyl dress revealing her bare chest in all its glory, and triggering horrified reactions as she passed. This scene alone says more about what punk was than the six episodes put together. “Being naked is a political act“, she explains to Steve Jones in the series. “Walk past their stuck faces, those filthy hypocrites… This is supposed to be a free country!“
There is therefore not only bad in this series. First, if the Disney collaboration could give rise to fears of an ultra-polished and well-groomed story, it is not so: sex, drugs and rock’n’roll are served here in high doses, with a good ladle of swearing and additional violence.
The series being based on his memoirs, Steve Jones, played by the convincing Toby Wallace, is at the heart of the story and almost all the plans. But he does not really give himself the beautiful role, as a rough-hewn illiterate, not very talented in singing or on the guitar, who, moreover, jumps on anything that moves. If we regularly return to his past as a child abused by his stepfather, we also see how he lets himself be manipulated by Malcolm McLaren and is guilty of cowardice towards the group by never standing up to him.
The series also shows the Machiavellian side of their manager, a marketing ace leading, according to his hazy ideas, a group that he co-assembled from odds and ends with Steve Jones and that he considers a “brand “. A group that intends to sow chaos and is basically only chaos and anarchy as the disagreement, deliberately stirred up by McLaren, reigns between its members. “Tear yourselves like the rebel rats that you are“, intimate the latter. “Our thing is not music, it’s chaos“, summarizes Steve Jones with a music journalist.
An excerpt from a concert by the real Sex Pistols in Stockholm in 1977
The recreation of the incendiary concerts of the Sex Pistols is a big highlight of the series. These dangerously borderline live scenes, in which the vociferous fake Johnny Rotten excels and the other actors really play their instruments, give the episodes the acceleration and energy they too often lack. The concert scene at Chelmsford Prison is particularly heartening, but fortunately there are many more.
The idea of slipping in archival footage of English society from the 70s works well, as do the few flashes of the real Sex Pistols. While the character of Steve Jones is the most nuanced and less cartoonish of the lot, the actors are pretty good overall, especially Sydney Chandler as Chrissie Hynde, who is very present in the series, as well as Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Malcolm McLaren , unbearable at will, with a special mention for Louis Partridge as Sid Vicious adrift, eruptive and stupid to die for, but nevertheless endearing.
As for the music, it is supervised by veterans of British techno Underworld and their choices are popular, from David Bowie to Sly & The Family Stone, Gainsbourg-Birkin, Modern Lovers or Betty Davis. More than the images, it is the music of the Sex Pistols that makes the most lasting impression on the brain: enough to note that this ephemeral group, which said that it loved noise above all else, wrote hymns – Anarchy in the UK, God Save The Queen, Pretty Vacant, Problems, Bodies, Submission – as haunting as they are imperishable.
“Pistol”, a 6-episode mini-series on Disney+ can be seen from Wednesday July 6 2022 (This series is reserved for “an informed public”. Disney has implemented reinforced parental controls allowing the creation of profiles locked by a PIN code)