'Pistol' review: Danny Boyle captures the mystique of The Sex Pistols

·5-min read
Johnny Rotten (Anson Boon) in Pistol. (FX/Disney+)
Johnny Rotten (Anson Boon) in Pistol. (FX/Disney+)

Taking pot shots at the establishment with a loaded Pistol, Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) brings 1970s Britain to life in a new limited series launching on Disney+ from 31 May.

Using Lonely Boy: Tales of a Sex Pistol — the memoir of Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones — as his cultural touchstone, Boyle creates an era specific environment which captures England at its lowest ebb.

Incorporating grainy stock footage alongside a montage of formative punk rock moments, which uses broad narrative strokes to capture character beats.

Read more: Steve Jones urges John Lydon to 'grow up' after Pistol TV series criticism

Featuring Toby Wallace as the eponymous man in question, Steve Jones exudes an awkwardly off-kilter charisma alongside icons including Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley), Malcolm McLaren (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Jordan (Maisie Williams).

“PISTOL” --  Pictured (L-R): Jacob Slater as Paul Cook, Anson Boon as John Lyndon, Toby Wallace as Steve Jones, Christian Lees as Glen Matlock
.  CR: Miya Mizuno/FX
Jacob Slater as Paul Cook, Anson Boon as John Lyndon, Toby Wallace as Steve Jones, Christian Lees as Glen Matlock in Pistol. (Disney+/FX)

Each one of them instrumental in capitalising on this cultural shift, as the working classes turned music on its head.

As each episode plays out and small pieces of this puzzle slowly slot into place, audiences will realise how passionate Danny Boyle really was about the project. He works hard to keep things grounded, gritty and relentless grim, with only the occasional creative flourish, which allows this unique ensemble of character actors to inhabit the era completely.

Read more: Sex Pistols to re-release God Save the Queen for Jubilee

From this merry band of punk rock fashionistas, the most outstanding performances come from Anson Boon (Johnny Rotten) and Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Malcolm McLaren. Both go beyond mere characterisation and cadence, bringing with them a genuine level of authenticity which elevates Pistol effortlessly.

“PISTOL” --  Pictured (L-R): Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Malcolm McLaren, Talulah Riley as Vivienne Westwood.  CR: Miya Mizuno/FX
Pistol: Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Malcolm McLaren, Talulah Riley as Vivienne Westwood. (Miya Mizuno/FX)

For anybody who has ever seen The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle directed by Julien Temple, it is apparent how close Brodie-Sangster gets to McLaren. He nails that unrefined bravado which trips off his tongue, conveying the essence of a man who perpetually schemed and bamboozled every room into submission.

In the other wild-eyed corner, making a malnourished fashion statement, stands Anson Boon as John Lydon. Brandishing an eccentrically Rotten persona in both hands, cautiously hiding a keen mind behind foulmouthed mis-direction and provocative pronouncements of intent. He brings together all the elements of a cultural car crash in one person, forever poised to offer up some venomous vitriol.

PISTOL (L-R): Anson Boon as John Lyndon, Louis Partridge as Sid Vicious, Toby Wallace as Steve Jones, Jacob Slater as Paul Cook (Rebecca Brenneman/FX)
Pistol (L-R): Anson Boon as John Lyndon, Louis Partridge as Sid Vicious, Toby Wallace as Steve Jones, Jacob Slater as Paul Cook (Rebecca Brenneman/FX)

If audiences then consider the presence of an unrecognisable Maisie Williams (Jordan), hidden beneath platinum blonde hair and Westwood threads, Pistol is also seeking to respect others who played their part, bringing attention to Chrissie Hynde (Sydney Chandler), Nancy Spungen (Emma Appleton) and Siouxsie Sioux (Beth Dillon) amongst others.

Each one plays a major role either forming bands themselves, or ending up tragic footnotes in a time of extreme cultural change. Danny Boyle clearly appreciates this, as he uses other musical icons outside of The Sex Pistols who went up against punk rock at the time.

Jordan (Maisie Williams) in Pistol (Disney+/FX)
Jordan (Maisie Williams) in Pistol (Disney+/FX)

With T-Rex, David Bowie, and Yes peppering the soundtrack or featuring in concert footage this was never about one band. Instead, they become cultural catalysts challenging both glam rock and disco in a bid to voice their anger through self-expression. The band carves out a niche in the musical landscape while Britain stands back in disbelief.

Read more: John Lydon isn't a fan of Harry and Meghan

Needless to say, Pistol has already received its fair share of criticism from some of those involved, claiming historical inaccuracies regarding certain events. Which has done no harm in promoting either the project as a whole, or anybody who happened to raise objections, something which neither party could say has done anyone any harm.

Glen Matlock (Christian Lees), Steve Jones (Toby Wallace) and Wally Nightingale (Dylan Llewellyn) in Pistol (FX/Disney+)
Glen Matlock (Christian Lees), Steve Jones (Toby Wallace), and Wally Nightingale (Dylan Llewellyn) in Pistol (FX/Disney+)

Ultimately, the question is whether or not Pistol stands alone as an engaging piece of entertainment, or feels more like a flagrant cash-in intended to merely scratch the surface. Thankfully, what comes through is more thought-provoking than many may have feared, as Boyle manages to capture something of their mystique.

Read more: John Lydon says he was "ostracised" from making of Pistol

Bringing together the disparate elements of a monumental moment in music history, that burned brightly before being extinguished as another decade came into being. Leaving in its wake an iconic movement borne of frustration, powered by poverty yet undeniably unique. Making creative waves over forty years after the fact, while enlightening a new generation of musicians.

Watch a trailer for Pistol below

This is what Pistol promises to deliver when audiences dive into this passion project, as an eclectic ensemble of polished performances looks to shed some light on a bygone era defined by dissatisfaction. A time when cultural change had an opportunity to gain some momentum, rather than spreading like cybernetic wildfire to billions of people in a matter of minutes.

That being said, it is ironic that a biopic on the most iconic anti-establishment band in music history, should end up on Disney+.

A streaming service that personifies ‘mainstream’ in every conceivable sense of the word.

Pistol is streaming exclusively on Disney+.

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