In Steve Jones’s splenetic autobiography, Lonely Boy, the Sex Pistols’ guitarist does his best to puncture the fables which have grown up around the group. He admits to being hazy about the facts – relying on a radio interview he did with manager Malcolm McLaren in 2005 for the chronology of how the band evolved. Jones’ tenure as the frontman of Kutie Jones And His Sex Pistols ended when McLaren was urged by Vivienne Westwood to look out for a good-looking boy called John. John Lydon is hired, though it transpires that the John that Westwood had in mind was John Ritchie, the future Sid Vicious. And the rest is history, or at least myth.
Pistol is loosely based on Lonely Boy, but it has an uncertain tone, fluctuating between cartoonish awe and the predictable dynamics of a rock’n’roll exploitation film. Pistol’s creator, Baz Luhrmann collaborator Craig Pearce, and writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce, flatten Jones’s plainspokenness to the point of self-parody. “I screw a lot of birds and I act tough,” Jones (Toby Wallace) says, explaining his inadequacy as a frontman. “But when I’m up there I’ve got nowhere… nowhere left to hide.”
Jones is presented as an amphetamine-fueled herbert whose early flirtations with the music business involve stealing equipment from the Hammersmith Odeon. Wallace doesn’t quite convince as Jones – his streetwise charms have a whiff of Jamie Oliver. Glen Matlock (Christian Lees) is introduced as “a jumped up little ponce who likes The Beatles” and never really recovers. Paul Cook (Jacob Slater) is Jones’s straight man and little else. Ironically, as Lydon has been vociferous in his disapproval of the TV series, Anson Boon’s mincing Rotten is one of the more convincing impersonations, perhaps because the real-life Rotten seems to exist within the realms of performance, and Boon can anchor the character in his sneers and verbal tics. Chrissie Hynde (Sydney Chandler) floats around McLaren/Westwood’s shop Sex, resisting Jones’ advances, being endearing and quite unlike Chrissie Hynde. Jordan (Maisie Williams) gets to set up a joke by wearing a see-through top on a suburban train. “Being seen is a political act,” she says, explaining that she has embarked on a vulva-powered revolution. “Why take the train if you’ve got a Volvo?” Jones replies.
Visually, it’s lovely. Director Danny Boyle brings his customary panache. The dilapidation of 1970s London is framed with fusty news clips which highlight the dull conformity the Pistols’ were trying to smash. There are some low-key eureka moments, such as the hamster cameo which gives Sid Vicious his name. The use of music – non-punk – is fantastic. Jordan’s defiance is soundtracked by Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me”, The Kinks add colour to a journey through Soho, and the growing confidence of Rotten as a singer is hailed with a blast of the Bay City Rollers’ “Shang-A-Lang”. Scam or revolutionary act? In McLaren’s telling, the Sex Pistols were both. Pistol opts for a bit of a Carry On.