Mini-series ‘Pistol’ captures the anarchy in the sex pistols

LONDON – “Then we spit something?” asked a man in the crowd at the 100 Club, a small, red-walled underground space, smelling of wasted beer, cigarette smoke and a thousand lost nights, just off Oxford Street in London.

Yes, there would be spitting. The club was the setting for an early appearance by the Sex Pistols, which was remade last June for “Pistols”, a six-part series about the British band, directed by Danny Boyle and streamed on Hulu in the United States and Disney + in other areas, starting May 31st.

The Sex Pistols were the “philosophers and the dress code” of the punk revolution, said Boyle, who seemed to be on set everywhere, talking to the extras about audience behavior, checking cameras and looking intently at monitors while the actors sang performed “Bodies” and the audience went wild.

“I tried to make the series in a way that was chaotic and true to the Pistols manifesto,” Boyle said in a recent interview. That meant an experimental approach to filming: “We would just shoot whole scenes, whole performances, not knowing if we had the ‘right’ recording or not. It’s all you learned not to do. “

Thomas Brodie-Sangster, who plays Malcolm McLaren, the band’s manager, with virtuoso panache, said Boyle’s approach was different from anything he had experienced before on a set. “You felt this could go wrong, but you could trust Danny and dive in and experiment – all Sex Pistols!”

The result is a loaded, visceral, cubist portrait of the flamboyant rise and explosive fall of the Sex Pistols, whose short existence from 1975 to 1978 made punk rock a worldwide phenomenon and whose anarchic songs (“God Save the Queen,” “Pretty Vacant “”) “) became hymns for the dissatisfied.

The series, written by Craig Pearce, is based on the memoir “Tales of a Lonely Boy” by Steve Jones, the band’s guitarist. But Boyle said that although Jones’ story was “a wonderful way in”, he and Pearce sought to paint a composite picture of the entire group, and the ’70s world from which it emerged. (The band originally consisted of Jones, the singer John Lydon, known as Johnny Rotten, the drummer Paul Cook, and Glen Matlock on bass, replaced in 1977 by Sid Vicious.)

The first episode opens with a montage of archival footage: The Queen swings politely to the audience; a scene from the slapstick “Carry On” movies; David Bowie performing; striking workers and rubbish piled up on streets. When we meet Steve (Toby Wallace), he’s stealing sound equipment from a Bowie gig. (The singer’s lipstick is still on the microphone.)

Steve and his bandmates are angry, bored, and “try hard enough to scrape together for another pint,” he tells them as they discuss what their group should wear. “So, no packs?” asks the cheerful Wally, who is soon to be booted out of the band.

“It’s hard to overestimate what class-driving and dying British society was like for these boys,” said Pearce, who met Jones, Cook and other figures close to the band before writing most of the script in his native country. Australia in the first months of the pandemic.

“The promise of the Swinging Sixties did not go out; rock ‘n’ roll freedom did not happen to most children, “Pearce said.” There was a feeling that if you were born into a certain class, you could not escape. You had to accept what you were handed over. “

Then, he said, came “this group of children who said, you sleep through life.”

Boyle, he added, has always been his “dream director” for the series. “We could not believe it when he immediately said he wanted to do it.”

It turned out that Boyle could not quite believe it either. “I’m very music driven, but I never imagined I would do the Pistols,” he said. “I had been following John Lydon’s career closely, and the hostility he felt towards others was no secret.” But after reading Pearce’s script, Boyle immediately said yes.

“That was ridiculous,” he said with a laugh, “because I did not even know if we would have the music, most importantly.”

Lydon opposed both the use of the Sex Pistols music and the series itself, but eventually lost his lawsuit when a judge ruled that the terms of a band agreement gave Cook and Jones a majority vote. Boyle said he had tried to contact Lydon during the dispute. He added that he hoped the series would reveal “the genius and the humility” in the frontman.

Boyle said that while he did extensive reading and research, and talking to anyone he could find who had been involved with the band, he eventually trusted his intuition in formulating an approach to the series.

“I grew up in a working class environment similar to Steve and these guys,” he said. “We’re exactly the same age and I’m a music observer. I had to explain to the actors what the ’70s were like; they just did not recognize how little stimulation there was, how you waited all week until the lifeline of ‘The New Musical Express appeared on a Thursday!’

Before filming began, the actors playing the band members spent two months in “band camp”, with a daily routine of music lessons, focal coaching and movement practice. Sometimes Boyle would talk to her about the ’70s and show her footage. Then, led by Karl Hyde and Rick Smith of the British electronic music group Underworld, they would play for hours together.

Boyle said he had preferred to cast trained musicians. “I did not want anyone locked into an expertise,” he said, adding that Jacob Slater, who plays Cook, was an excellent guitarist but had to learn drums.

He also decided not to do any post-production work on the music. “Like the Pistols, we just had to get up and, no matter how imperfect we were, go for it,” said Sydney Chandler, who plays American singer Chrissie Hynde. Chandler’s character is one of several memorable women in the series, alongside designer Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley), Nancy Spungen (Emma Appleton) and punk icon Jordan (Maisie Williams).

When it came to the band members, “we did not want to be tributes or caricatures,” said Anson Boon, who plays Lydon and, like his character, had never sung before. “The Pistols produced a raw, angry wall of sound and we wanted to capture that essence without trying to make an impression.”

Playing a character who is also a real person was intimidating but fascinating, said Wallace, who spent time with Jones before filming began. “We talked a lot about his family, then he gave me the first guitar lesson I really had.”

The series shows the unfortunate childhood of Steve, who saw Wallace as central to “anger and frustration,” he said, and led him to create “a band that does not represent the uninitiated.”

Working on the series, Boyle said, had made him aware of the importance of the Pistols outside of music. “They were a bunch of working class guys who broke the order of things, more than the Beatles,” he said. “It was particularly resonant in the UK, where the way you were expected to behave was so entrenched.”

The Pistols, he added, gave their fans permission to do what they wanted, to waste their time as they wished, to shape their own lives in a singular way.

“They gave aimlessness a sense of purpose,” he said.

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