“Pistol” glosses over the revolution at its core and just lightly notes how it affected others, often with news footage from the era that shows real teens with clothespins in their noses, or improvising their own hairstyles. Side plots branch off to different fans—most women, including one for a Black mental hospital patient named Pauline (Bianca Stephens) whose backstory of trauma is clumsily handled—and more or less offer the tidy sense that people also felt their music. And outside of the band, the series pays lip service to women who were adjacent to their movement, like Vivien Westwood (Talulah Riley), whose punk boutique SEX gave the band their name and their edge and philosophical desire to shake things up. Meanwhile Chrissy Hynde (Sydney Chandler), later of The Pretenders, a worker at the boutique, is the one who has to give Steve guitar lessons. These women are clearly very interesting but they become either girlfriends or mother figures in the story—at least we get to hear Hynde sound check future Pretenders hit “Brass in Pocket” as a type of rocket away from this tedious hell. Maisie Williams also shows up, as a real-life London fixture named Jordan who had stand-up hair and strolled the streets in shocking clothes, but her character is dropped to the side after a grating scene where Vivien explains to a couple young Sex Pistols fans what Jordan’s clothing “means.”
The other major band member of the Sex Pistols tale, Sid Vicious (played by Louis Partridge), takes on a larger part of the story by no fault of his own from the inherently calamitous course of events, but that fits awkwardly into the already lacking momentum. By the time he becomes the band’s bassist and latest cultural figure, he represents the most tedious facets of being a Sex Pistol—he’s openly image-driven, self-destructive to the point that getting his ass kicked makes him content, and addicted to the substances (his toxic relationship with Nancy [Emma Appleton] and heroin) that eat rockers alive. And yes, he can’t play bass. Like how Steve was our original symbol of aimlessness, Sid Vicious is presented as further evidence of the loud movement’s low standards and superficiality, and the later episodes shuffle him on and off-stage.
“Pistol” wants to embrace its self-professed antichrists and recreate the mechanics of their chaos, but in turn it becomes the rare case of a music biopic that might be too honest for its own good. The mere sentiment behind it all, in Boyle’s filmmaking and the Sex Pistols’ fight songs, is far from enough.
Full series screened for review. All episodes of “Pistol” premiere on FX on Hulu on May 31st.
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