If there’s one takeaway from 2022 TV so far, it’s that not everything needs to be turned into a drama.
Apple TV Plus’ WeCrashed, about the troubles of flashy startup WeWork – including its $37 billion valuation loss – does not have the same zip and drive as Hulu’s documentary on the same subject from the year before. Likewise, Hulu’s The Dropout, which chronicles the rise and fall of pharmaceutical entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes, lacks the intrigue and pure shock value of Alex Gibney’s documentary, The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley; the latter tells the same story, better, in less than a third of the time.
Danny Boyle’s lavish new Hulu drama Pistol falls into exactly the same category. This six-part drama about the formation, explosion and implosion of punk icons The Sex Pistols pales in comparison to a great many documentaries about the history of punk rock. Held up next to its fiery, vibrant subject matter, it’s frankly drab and dull.
The show is based on Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol, the memoir from one-time Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones. It is written by Craig Pearce, who co-wrote several films with Baz Luhrmann, including Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! Boyle directed all six episodes. It’s billed as a brash, unflinching account of a formative time in the United Kingdom, a time that changed music forever, a time full of debauchery, excess and big ideas. A real counter-cultural moment. Sadly, the show plays out like its script was copied and pasted straight from Wikipedia, ticking off major events in The Sex Pistols' history with all the verve and spark of a weekly trip around the fruit and vegetable aisles.
What’s especially grating is the series’ depiction of the various notables who came out of this historical era. The punk scene produced so many big characters, and all of them are in Boyle’s drama. Vivienne Westwood, who went on to become a luminary in high fashion, is running SEX, her fetish shop, alongside Malcolm McLaren, the svengali who would found The Sex Pistols. Also working in the shop is Chrissie Hynde, who’d later go on to front The Pretenders. Along the way, we spend time with Jordan – aka Pamela Rooke – the punk rock model who today adorns many a Topshop t-shirt; Richard Branson, back when he was just a monied record executive; and an up and coming Billy Idol. Then there are the band members themselves: John Lydon – aka Johnny Rotten – the motormouth punk prince; Sid Vicious, the notorious poster boy; and Jones, the illiterate waster who somehow found his way into one of music history’s most influential bands.
So many big personalities who’ve left a lasting impression, and yet – with the exception of Jones, whose horrific upbringing is frequently referred to via flashback footage – none have any agency. Things just happen.
To tell the Sex Pistols’ story, Boyle mixes archival footage with his own fresh material. All the clips drive home one central point: England in 1975 is a stuffy, backward, socially Conservative hellhole, which is disappearing culturally up its own backside in the wilderness of a post-Beatles landscape. It is a land in desperate need of a cultural reset. Enter McLaren, the mastermind who would engineer The Sex Pistols – and change music forever.
We watch McLaren lay out his manifesto to incite a true counterculture, as he constructs a band in that image. We see him meet Jones, who is a homeless drifter with a serious wandering eye, and try to make him the singer. Eventually, McLaren finds Lydon, his prince of anarchy, a sardonic lightning rod with a voice like sandpaper and a permanent sneer. And then we're off.
If you know anything about The Sex Pistols, you probably know that the whole thing was over very quickly. They go from nobodies to controversy magnets to world famous rock stars to nothing again in the span of about two years, leaving a trail of spit, blood, destruction and utter chaos in their wake.
Maybe that’s the problem. Pearce clearly felt like he had to cram in absolutely everything. Trouble is, Steve Jones discovering he can finally play a Stooges riff after a week spent living on nothing but amphetamines might be a killer scene in a book, but it’s not the stuff of visual drama, especially when it’s not the real thing. We saw The Beatles do it for real in Get Back after all.
It’s really a shame, because Boyle’s drama has a lot of good things in place. A handsome young cast, with Game Of Thrones' Maisie Williams playing Jordan, Westworld's Talulah Riley on form as Westwood, and The Maze Runner's Thomas Brodie-Sangster all in as McLaren – not to mention breakout stars like Toby Wallace, Anson Boon, Louis Partridge and Sydney Chandler. It’s powered by a cracking soundtrack, with not just The Sex Pistols’ music, but also The Kinks, The Clash, David Bowie and so much more; and a sizeable budget, judging by some of the sequences on show.
The show also has the perfect dash of what McLaren valued above everything else: controversy. Controversy which arose when Lydon was so upset by his portrayal in the script that he filed a lawsuit against former bandmates Jones, Paul Cook, Glen Matlock, and the estate of Sid Vicious to stop the Sex Pistols music from being used in the series. He called the show "the most disrespectful s**t I’ve ever had to endure." In the end, Lydon lost the case – and almost bankrupted himself in the process.
You have to wonder why Lydon was so incensed. His portrayal isn’t exactly flattering, but his character gets the same treatment as all the other members of the band. Pearce’s script paints them as a bunch of chancers, pawns in the game of McLaren and Westwood. They don’t even look like all that much fun to be around; culture is exploding all around them, yet they’re mostly in the pub.
Boyle’s direction does elevate things somewhat. He’s stylish in his choices, and how he shoots the band’s performances may give you a fleeting dash of excitement, but any of that is gone as soon as anyone starts talking.
If you’re brand new to the story, watching how the sausage was made might be interesting. Maybe you never heard of Malcolm McLaren; or maybe you wonder how the genre that gave us The Clash, Green Day and Nirvana came into being; or perhaps you’re curious about where Oasis discovered that guitar sound that makes every song sound like a jet plane taking off. If you’re curious about any of that, send me an email. I’ll recommend a list of documentaries that tell this story with more panache – and far more quickly. Or just listen to the music. As Pistol proves definitively, that was always the best thing.
All six episodes of Pistol will debut on Hulu on May 31. The series will be available on Disney Plus in the UK on the same day.
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Tom Goodwyn was formerly TechRadar's Senior Entertainment Editor. He's now a freelancer writing about TV shows, documentaries and movies across streaming services, theaters and beyond. Based in East London, he loves nothing more than spending all day in a movie theater, well, he did before he had two small children…