With Pistol Danny Boyle belittles punk. And the Sex Pistols

03 September 2022 09:17

From the interviews I understand that the screenwriter and director Danny Boyle is very fond of the Sex Pistols. “Saying it may sound a little pretentious, of course, but in a way it was destined for me to do it,” he said in a recent interview. “I knew that sooner or later I had to make a punk movie”. I’m not sure how to reconcile this sense of predestination e Pistolthe six-episode series that Boyle directed for Fx / Hulu on the Sex Pistols, a short-lived but hugely influential group.

For starters, the series draws heavily on Steve Jones’ 2017 memoir, Lonely boy: the story of a Sex Pistol. This means tons of material about Steve Jones (played by Toby Wallace) being a sensitive boy, marked by a poor working-class childhood, crushed by an overbearing, no-nonsense father. And so many other moments in which Jones seems to want to present himself as the central, and mostly sane, figure in a group of crazy and often evil individuals.

There is also tons of information about his alleged romance with Chrissie Hynde (Sydney Chandler), before she formed The Pretenders. Boyle congratulates himself on the way he and writer Craig Pearce have finally given the right space to the women involved in the band’s turbulent odyssey, with unusually in-depth portraits of designer Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley), the icon of the band. fashion Pamela Rooke aka Jordan (Maisie Williams), chaos catalyst Nancy Spungen (Emma Appleton), and above all Hynde. “The fear was that she was some kind of time bomb and that when she arrived she would outshine all the others,” says Boyle. “He Who knows how many other girls have been frustrated by being treated with little attention, even if punk was rather welcoming towards women”.

Given these high intentions of “redressing” the wrongs suffered by women in the Sex Pistols orbit, it’s funny to report that Hynde has bluntly objected to the way Boyle talks about her relationship with Steve Jones: “I only fucked him once, you know”.

It is understandable that John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten – once brilliant, but now on a strange mental path that has led him to explicit admiration for Queen Elizabeth and even an appearance on reality TV. Judge Judy – tried, unsuccessfully, to obtain a court order to block the production of the series, refusing to grant the license for the music. His comments on Boyle’s series appear hard but fairand question the “fairytale” description of the group’s history, calling it a “bourgeois fantasy”.

The series actually looks surprisingly bourgeois, and follows the established formula of the biopic, which is, in general, a despicable genre that features incredible, messy and radical lives as if following familiar and conventional narrative arcs, and which, in doing so, allows the directors to win awards. In the biographies of music legends there are usually painful and unimaginative scenes that tell famous moments of creative inspiration. These scenes haven’t changed much since the so-called golden age of Hollywood.

Faithful to the most cheap traditions, Pistol constantly shows us bogus scenes of writing texts and inventing new names for the members of the group, in strictly stereotyped terms that usually follow this pattern: one character suggests something wrong, another character suggests a better alternative, and finally when you get the right name someone yells the equivalent of “found!.

In the series Pistol, Sid Vicious, born John Simon Ritchie (Louis Partridge), receives his famous nickname when he tells his childhood friend John Lydon / Johnny Rotten (Anson Boon) that his hamster is called Sid. He then he approaches the cage, gets bitten and says: “Sid’s viciuos! ”(Sid is bad).

Of course, there are good things too. The film’s most exhilarating sequence shows Jordan cycling through the city and taking a train to London to go to work at Westwood’s Sex boutique, beautifully punk in her see-through T-shirt revealing her breasts, eyes emerging from bold stripes. horizontal banners of black make-up and long light blonde hair pointing upward like a graceful wave, a kind of troll doll. She has an incredible appearance and is not intimidated by the shocked looks and hostile exclamations that are given to her. For a few minutes, the viewer perceives the sense of the liberating potential of punk. Why not reject a fossilized world outright? All day, every day. Why not manifest this rejection in the way we dress, talk, move, sing, eat, design, work, make love, relate to systems of power and so on? Why are we all so polite, attentive and respectful?

If ever there was an opportunity to do something radical it was this one. But Danny Boyle is limited to the homework

There are also some pleasant, but not memorable, montage sequences from 1970s England, like the one in which Queen Elizabeth celebrates her silver jubilee. The young actors who play the Sex Pistols act enthusiastically. There is a certain joy in hearing songs like Anarchy in the UK, God save the queen, Bodies, No funand the pounding, howling version of My way by Sid Vicious. And it would be hard not to get a little excited seeing the dark and tragicomic tour of the Sex Pistols in the southwestern United States, and the grisly spectacle of history between Sid and Nancy, with the death of both, and the final breakup of the band.

But overall, the series is too soft, too mechanical, too conventional. If ever there was a glorious opportunity to do something formally radical, something stylistically mind-blowing, something that broke the rules, it was this: a better subject could never be found. But Danny Boyle limits himself to the homework, introducing Steve and his first teammates, Paul Cook (Jacob Slater) and Glen Matlock (Christian Lees), then showing his first fateful encounters with Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren (Thomas Brodie Sangster), and then bringing in John Lydon, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

An indignant moralism
McLaren is portrayed as a pixie-faced, curly-haired son of the devil, whose evil exploitation of the band he helped create has led to the latter’s ruin, while his consort Westwood is dismissed as a cold left nuisance, always ready to explain to everyone what are the correct revolutionary attitudes. While these are aspects of the truth, it’s not an interesting narrative: the Sex Pistols weren’t a band of angels, and therefore it seems absurd to introduce trivial villains to blame for everything.

The series is characterized by a strange and indignant moralism. Towards the end of Pistolwhen Sid Vicious becomes a dominant figure in the band and worries that his hair is spiky enough, the musician takes up McLaren’s words and says that, for the Sex Pistols, “what matters is looks”.

There is really a lot of bourgeois morality in the stupid appearance / reality binomial into which it falls Pistol

The scene suggests that Sid’s terrible display of superficiality marks the beginning of the end of the group. But why? The band’s look, curated by Westwood and McLaren, has always been vital to its impact. The striking self-representation of punk rockers was central to their defiance of the entire established order, which condemned working-class youth like themselves to a permanent state of “no future“.

People adopted Mohawk hair, ripped shirts, safety pins, skin piercings, and makeup that made them unrecognizable precisely because looks matter. There is really a lot of bourgeois morality in the stupid appearance / reality binomial in which Pistol falls in the end! Oscar Wilde will be turning in his grave, laughing at it.

You might as well torment yourself about how terrible it was that the Sex Pistols became such an important group even though most of them were not trained or established musicians. Steve Jones and Sid Vicious were barely able to play their instruments, and Johnny Rotten sang out of tune.

But Pistol he seems obsessed with just this aspect, in a completely conventional way, episode after episode, unable to forget it even when Sex Pistol find their own impetuous style, playing in an extraordinary way. Johnny Rotten is described as being plagued by her allegedly ugly voice, while Steve Jones is ashamed of not being able to play “correctly”, and tells Chrissie Hynde how much she deserves much more success, because she can “really” play and to sing.

It seems that Boyle has staged the liberating and heartening potentials offered by the Sex Pistols phenomenon only for the macabre pleasure of burying them at the end. In one last melancholy and fantastic meeting with Steve Jones, Johnny Rotten says that, at the very least, he will always have the memory of a joyful and redemptive performance by the group: a benefit concert, on Christmas Day, for the children of the striking firefighters. of the city of Huddersfield. The four members of the group approached this live performance with glee, dancing with the children to the notes of the disco hits of the time, distributing promotional material, throwing cakes in each other’s faces and then performing in a short concert.


It is a touching flashback, that of the Pistols supporting the “heroes of the working class” and their children, eliminating all their bad words so as not to disturb the children in any way. But the series presents it as if the Sex Pistols had accomplished one good deed in a short and wasted career, which seems exactly the wrong note to end with.

As I remember it, Sex Pistols-inspired punk was a marvel of positive potential. I remember, as a student, I frequented the local punk club: a total misfit, with my absurdly puritanical clothes, totally accepted for who I was, in a way that can only be attributed to deeply ingrained principles. I still remember punks as a model of tolerance in a sadly intolerant world. And I think it deserves a better homage than that.

Watch Obscenity and fury (2000), Julien Temple’s “rockumentary” about the Sex Pistols. It is a film that demonstrates the right degree of affection for that scabrous and wonderful group.

(Translation by Federico Ferrone)

With Pistol Danny Boyle belittles punk. And the Sex Pistols