On a total whim — or as “total whim” as it can be for something that is almost perfectly designed to entice my eyeballs — I watched “Pistol,” the mini-series about the Sex Pistols, directed by Danny Boyle. Here are some random thoughts about that experience, shall we, won’t you, we shall.
1. Excellent Opening. The opening scene has young Steve Jones sneaking into a concert hall where David Bowie has just completed another (assumedly) iconic performance on his Ziggy-Spiders tour. Young Steve does some pretty great Bowie-esque moves (the actor is quite good), all on stage. He inspects the microphone and notices it still has traces of lipstick on it. You can tell he’s amazed and excited and everything.
Then he steals the microphone. And a lot of the other equipment.
It’s as fantastic a way to start this series about a ne’er-do-well who dreams of making music as you could possibly imagine. I haven’t read Jones’ book “Lonely Boy” on which this series is based, so I don’t know how truthful it all is, but I don’t care.
Later episodes loose touch with this element, like it forgot. But its stull great on its own.
2. Oddly graphic sex scenes. I was shocked to find out that not only was Chrissie Hynde part of that early London punk scene, but that she and Steve had a sexual thing going on. They get to this in the first episode, with a rather wonderful give and take scene around singing a Bowie song together, culminating in their nearly getting caught by Hynde’s then boyfriend. Eventually they start hooking up proper, and at about episode 3 or 4, there are sex scenes that would make “Desperado” blush. I’m not saying the people didn’t do these things, or that you can’t include such stuff in movies. It’s just… it felt really odd to have those kinds of sex scenes, filmed that way in this show. I have no better way to talk about it without showing the clip and risk some kind of lawsuit, but if you’ve seen it, I think you’ll know what I mean. It’s a lot of cross fades to arched backs, ecstatic head rolls, TONS of boob shots, all that sort of thing.
Once again, we have a situation where the first episode’s handling of this material feels vastly superior to that of later episodes. It makes me wonder if Boyle actually directed every episode. Or if he did, did he just get tired by the end? Or was it part of Jones’ contract to “Make me look like I could get anybody, and really show the skin?” I don’t know.
3. The Hulu/FX Musical Television Universe. Between this show and “Wu-Tang: An American Saga,” I’ve rather enjoyed the dramatic musical bio pic stuff put out by Hulu lately. They have a fair amount of “Y’all don’t walk the line” level title dropping, but that’s to be expected. Both shows have done very well at casting their major parts, and there have been some particularly great artistic flares. “Pistol” gets points for recreating televised and filmed moments (the Grundy talk show, the “God Save the Queen” performance on the Thames), but there are also some excellent, sort of funny moments of creative shorthand. The introduction of Nancy is a perfect example: she walks into the club and bee-lines to the front. She and Sid lock eyes and they’re hooked. It’s good, but not great.
What’s great is the next scene, which opens on Steve (I think) in the van, holding his ears as Nancy talks. And talks. And talks and talks and talks. In one image, we know everything we need to know about this relationship. True, it’s playing off stuff we all kind of assumed, but it’s well portrayed none the less.
Anyway, I hope they make more shows like this. I’m eating them up. “Wu-Tang” had similar moments, as well as great scenes about the creative process. In fact…
4.) Another True-Feeling “How We Wrote It” Scene. These scenes are easy to mess up, but “Pistol” has a great one. As they’re writing a tune which would eventually become “Anarchy in the UK,” Glen Matlock — the most classically “musical” member of the band — is fiddling on his guitar, adding minor touches and sustains and all that. And Steve is getting angry with him, telling him that they aren’t in some Paul McCartney tribute band for pensioners. He asks Glen for the chords, and when Glen says something like “C suspended Second,” Steve screams back “C!” as in “Just C!”
Glen continues with “F major seventh…” and “E on the bass over an…” and every time, Steve breaks it down — screaming — to the simple letter of the chord, telling him to play like he’s punching, and to play “like a FUCKING Sex Pistol!”
I appreciate this for multiple reasons, the first of which being that when I, myself, play along with songs, and I see these complicated tabs, I often simplify things to the major root chords. I learned by playing power chords with Ramones songs, so I’ve never been especially nuanced (or careful) so long as I nailed the rhythm and the feeling. I suspect it was much the same with other Ramones-like bands. And second, it shows a song being almost anti-written. Glen has great pop ideas, but by simplifying it — breaking it all apart — a voice is being created.
The scene goes on, bringing back the he-was-just-about-to-quit drummer Paul Cooke (who also gets to deliver the only mention of the Ramones in the whole series because I KNEW THEY WOULDN’T TALK ABOUT THEM!!!) to bring in the perfect rhythm, and Johnny Rotten comes charging in with his lyrics. It’s one of those cliche song-writing scenes, but it works because every character makes a contribution, most have to give and take here and there, and then it culminates with a classic tune.
5. The Jonesey’s Jukebox Podcast. As part of the promotion for “Pistol,” the legendary radio show has shared key, special episodes with great interviews. Look for the one with Chrissie Hynde to see just how the show naaaaaailed this character. She cares, but she’s cool, and she doesn’t take shit, and she’s funny, but messes with people.
6. After That Great Start, An Odd Finish. All that stuff in Point 1 happened in the first 5 minutes of the 6-part series. By the end, we’ve met and dispensed with all the other Pistols, girlfriends, influencers, scenesters and major players in the story. It ends with a rather crowded episode: the Pistols fall to pieces, Sid and Nancy die, Steve starts doing smack, all leading to a final scene between Steve and John Lyndon reminiscing about their achievements.
On its own, the scene is fine. It’s well filmed and acted, and it alludes to a kind of curtain call flashback to an earlier, happier gig the pistols did as a benefit for firefighters and their children.
But it feels kind of flat when you take into account the earlier scenes and the series as a whole. I mean, I guess, sure, it follows a trajectory similar to the history of the band. Great. Yet looking at the piece as a six hour movie, I think ending it with the two of them (and kind of the 4 of them) doesn’t wrap things up, or at least doesn’t connect things back to where we started.
My solution: Steve and John reminisce about the last few years/episodes together, then they hear a noise off stage. They go the main area to catch a younger kid who has snuck in to steal their equipment. This young kid wants to be just like his heroes, the Sex Pistols, mirroring the opening.
I’m tempted to think that they wanted to fizzle out much the way the band did, to leave people as frustrated as they felt. But then they wouldn’t have included that flashback curtain call scene. I think doing some kind of call back to the opening concert theft would have been a good way to tell us ”it’s over” while letting us feel kind of nice about it, too.
7. Parents. (Added after original publishing) Its a little thing, but i really enjoyed the series of scenes where — after receiving their first copies of their single — the band travels to each member’s parents and plays it for them.
With varying degrees of success. Steve’s parents are not thrilled, with him or the music. But the others are and it is — and I cant believe I’m saying this but it’s true — cute. Cute AND it works.
So there you are. Watch the show and then play the music. That’s how these things work.