When it comes to creative mantras, you could do worse than the one seemingly adopted by Danny Boyle: “Never, ever let the audience be bored.”
This is actually not as easy as it sounds, nor is it a covert insult. If adopting a breakneck pace with a thousand jump cuts per minute and lots of loud music and hot people doing hot things were sufficient to make a hit movie or TV show, we’d all be star directors. In fact, there’s an artistry to deploying all these tactics and making the sum into an interesting product, and from Trainspotting to 28 Days Later to Slumdog Millionaire and Steve Jobs, Boyle has been hitting that artistic sweet spot efficiently for more or less an entire career.
He does it again with Pistol, the new FX miniseries (streaming on Hulu) created by Craig Pearce, documenting the dizzying rise to infamy of the Sex Pistols in late 1970s England. Guitarist Steve Jones (Toby Wallace) is the central figure here, and the story follows him as he goes from teen felon to punk icon, attracting the likes of Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious along the way. Boyle directs each episode, and it’s told in his inimitable style: Broad signifiers of a distinct milieu (complete with old footage of Britons running the gamut from Queen Elizabeth to a scowling old man on the sidewalk), an encyclopedic sense of period music, and scarcely a moment to breathe.
On the most visceral level, this works. The story of how these musicians of low-to-medium-level talent managed to captivate, excite, and appall an entire nation—and kickstart that nation’s punk movement—is fascinating on its own, especially when you consider that they were only together initially for three years. It’s a story of style, attitude, and perceived rebellion rather than musical ability, and thus it fits comfortably into Boyle’s storytelling mode. Wallace, as the internal combustion engine, has a kind of disheveled, almost violent charm, and visually the miniseries is a delight; Boyle is a master at capturing the sweeping panoramas of a short-lived zeitgeist, and he has always excelled particularly when societal poverty is one of the prominent subjects—a result, perhaps, of his own working-class English background.
In short, it’s fun, and if you’re at all interested in the era (if, for instance, you lived through it, or at least consumed the excellent oral history Please Kill Me), you’ll recognize both prominent and peripheral figures and get a little frisson of satisfaction. Among the former, you get Chrissie Hynde, later of Pretenders fame, Siouxsie Sioux, and even Billy Idol.
The criticism of Pistol will be achingly obvious; it’s a surface romp, the characters are mostly one-dimensional, and it never quite seems to engage with or even fully understand the forces driving this strange revolution in British culture. In place of real introspection, we get Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Malcolm McClaren. Brodie-Sangster, who will be best known to Americans for his role in The Queen’s Gambit and as Jojen Reed in Game of Thrones, is a fine actor who has been given the unenviable task in Pistol of stating the theme over and over and over again. In scene after scene, he tells us that the Sex Pistols are angry working-class boys without hope, no future, just hellbent on chaos and destruction, and by the fourth or fifth time you hear it, you wonder if maybe this should have been shown more than told. It does effectively depict McClaren as a semi-loathsome opportunist with a con’s vision for the quick score, but Boyle and Pearce are far too content to let his rambling monologues stand in for an actual exploration of the time and place.
The weakness of the show is a counter-effect of its strength—if you’re hellbent on matching the Sex Pistols’ anarchic energy with filmmaking that looks equally chaotic, you sacrifice depth. And depth is not impossible; you only have to watch the 1986 Alex Cox film Sid and Nancy to see a depiction of the Sex Pistols that is equally frenetic, but manages to capture a hard kind of realism, and its attendant human sadness. Or, if you want to see a drugged-up counterculture depicted with empathy, just watch Trainspotting. Boyle isn’t after that kind of thing here. He only wants to have fun, but that comes with a price, and the price is that nobody will ever call this show “great,” only “entertaining.”
Which is a shame, because the ‘70s in both the U.K. and America was a strange time of transition, ripe with the gritty tragedies of massive empires about to enter the hyper-capitalist age. There’s a reason American film peaked in that era, and slogged into the gaudy lows of Jaws and Star Wars soon after; this was, broadly speaking, the death of the individual in the face of all-consuming capitalism, and punk music was an inarticulate but powerful expression of young people who saw it coming, hated it, but could only express their grief in rage. To leave this element largely unexplored is a kind of failure to do one’s artistic and historic duty, and there’s a sad irony in watching someone like Boyle give the era a distinctly modern, glossy treatment.
Don’t read this as a total condemnation, though. It’s a very difficult balance to strike, and while you may leave this show not really knowing much of anything about the motivations or internal lives of the Sex Pistols, nor will you be unhappy for having watched it. It was so engaging, at times, that my own critical brain was left behind in the excitement. If the visceral thrill wears off a little too quickly, and leaves you pondering the question of “what’s missing here?”, that doesn’t quite take away the initial achievement, the performances, and the sense that on some level, this show does justice to the bizarre, thrilling ascent of a band whose influence outstripped its talent by country miles.
Pistol premieres Tuesday, May 31st on Hulu.
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .
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