There are few things that rock biopics love more than characters who act as if they know they’re in a rock biopic. There’s some unspoken need for conversations drenched with the importance of the music and changing the world and making something real, delivered with the absolute certainty that these ragtag group of upstarts are on a road to generation-altering fame.
The best you can say for “Pistol,” the new six-part limited series about the rise of the Sex Pistols against the backdrop of the burgeoning English punk scene, is that creator Craig Pearce and director Danny Boyle have a clear and deep love for the band they’re bringing to life. But as is the case for watching characters gush over shared love of David Bowie or prophesy about the effect their art will have on a culture yet to come, so much of “Pistol” feels like someone describing the dream they had the night before: It undoubtedly means something to the ones doing the telling, but very little of that translates to their intended audience.
The problems begin almost immediately, with Boyle and Pearce sprinkling in archival footage from the era of Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee, introducing the group by way of their highest-profile target. Even if that approach didn’t seem like an unnecessary affect, “Pistol” is working so hard to subvert the rock rise and fall story arc that it can’t help but stick to it along the way. Humble origins, stroke-of-luck breakthroughs, unexpected success, internal discord, regret over unfulfilled promise. It’s all here, even if it’s dressed up in leather and safety pins and a handful of hastily scrawled anarchy symbols for good measure.
Far closer to “Bohemian Rhapsody” than “24 Hour Party People,” this show also has the fundamental problem of perspective, being inherently filtered through the perspective of the band’s least compelling member. Here, that means looking through the eyes of Steve Jones (Toby Wallace), a conduit for “Pistol” that’s imperfect in all the wrong ways. The opening episode positions him as a main throughline for the Pistols, moreso than iconoclasts like Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), lead singer Johnny Rotten (Anson Boon), eventual bassist Sid Vicious (Louis Partridge), or championing designer Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley). Jones’ memoir “Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol” forms the foundation for this TV adaptation, one that nevertheless turns his personal struggles with childhood trauma into a jumbled mess of flashbacks that leave him as little more than a straightforward case study in rock excess.
It feels like even more of a failure to see a show about the Sex Pistols — a quintessential “fake it til you make it” rock story — fall back on so many of the story beats reserved for bands with a more conventional origin story. Whether McLaren saw a legitimate spark in this awkward pairing of clumsy musicians and a snarling vocalist, or whether he saw this as a coup to prove his bona fides as a master salesman, “Pistol” needs you to believe in something. The first episode in particular plays out as a grand self-fulfilling destiny without making any of the steps along the way feel revelatory or earned.
It doesn’t help that in the preamble before the Pistols actually start performing and recording, the show is littered with a smorgasbord of heavy-rotation classic rock needle drops, designed more to remind you of the late ‘70s than actually invite you in. Those documentary clips, which come to include contemporaneous news accounts of the Pistols’ and punk’s rise, function in the same way. By the time the show gets three or four deep into the parade of painfully egregious nickname origin stories, all that’s missing is a giant asterisked Adam McKay-style chyron telling you “Yeah, this actually happened.”
There’s an unmistakable early try-hard energy to Boyle’s approach that is clearly trying to evoke the spirit of a Sex Pistols song when there are no Sex Pistols songs yet to play. So rather than this band’s music and overall ethos feeling like a jolt to the system, it’s another instance where something like “Anarchy in the U.K.” arrives preordained, without a hint of surprise or discovery. Frenetically chopping between exteriors and trysts and late-night binge-drinking sessions, “Pistol” is often shouting without having much to say.
That does change somewhat with the arrival of Boon, whose Johnny Rotten is one of the only elements of “Pistol” that feels like it comes from the best version of this show. Much like Brodie-Sangster — who does his utmost despite being saddled with faux-profound pronouncements like “I don’t want to fuck you. I want you to fuck the world” — Boon does add some actual earned human emotion behind the facade. If the Sex Pistols was an elaborate performance that stumbled its way into iconography, you buy that it was possible because its frontman had a genuine chaotic gravitational pull. Where most of the show feels inert as it’s dragged into mopeyness or frivolousness, Boon finds a way to mine the fertile ground in between.
Pearce (a frequent Baz Luhrmann collaborator who’s also a co-writer on “Elvis”) strains for greater relevancy by occasionally breaking away from the band itself and tracking the effect these guys had on their fans and acolytes. In the stories of runaways or buttoned-down employees who transform themselves to embrace everything the Pistols represented, “Pistol” gestures toward a greater understanding of what they meant to others. Yet, even then, those changes are most aesthetic ones. “Pistol” ends up backing into a point that, to the extent that the Pistols were revolutionary, their version of rebelling against the status quo became more of a canvas for people to project their own anger onto rather than any greater guiding principle.
That leads to a number of people in this saga being included more for reasons of proximity than necessity. There’s a fascinating story to be told about the early days of Chrissie Hynde (Sydney Chandler) in London and her intertwined fates with the Sex Pistols’ emergence, years before The Pretenders existed. Here, she gets short shrift as Jones’ on-again, off-again fling, another in the collection of ancillary folks that are pushed aside in favor of the same familiar fame and strife and overindulgence of the Rock Biopic Checklist.
They’re rhythms that “Pistol” eventually uses to its advantage, however sparingly. The disastrous opening gives way to a more confident arc that trusts more in the Pistols’ performances than trying to artificially carry over that spirit into everything else in this story. Whenever Boyle manages to tamp down the faux-provocative visual put-ons and let this group work as a group, that’s when “Pistol” gets closest to capturing the energy it’s striving for.
These six episodes show how the music and the road to infamy were stifling to these individuals, quickly consuming everything else in their lives. There are precious few times that “Pistol” doesn’t fall into that same trap. On the rare chance that this show finds an unaffected moment between these young men — as it does in a quieter moment with all of them on the shore late one night on tour — you finally get the sense that they’re more than just component parts of something that will one day hold down a steady corner of the screen-printed T-shirt market. For most of the rest of the show, “Pistol” tries too hard to make the case for a band that never really needed any help to make an impression.
All six episodes of “Pistol” will be available to stream on Tuesday, May 31.