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27 May 2022

Pistol reveals the major problem with rock biopics

In Danny Boyle’s adaptation of the Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones’s memoir, the cast cannot make convincing rock stars.

By David Hepworth

The key problem with your rock biopic is the casting. Rock star charisma is unlike any other sort for the simple reason that most rock stars look slightly odd. If actors were truly capable of making convincing rock stars they would never get any work as actors. Whether it’s Elvis Presley or Johnny Rotten, impossible glamour or impossible grit, your rock star grows a shell around themselves as a teenager and then spends the rest of their life keeping up that act. I spoke to John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) recently and was struck by how fiercely in character he remained, even 50 years after the formation of the Sex Pistols. Compared with this lifetime of service, actors are lightweights.

In Pistol, Danny Boyle’s mini-series adaptation of the Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones’s memoir Lonely Boy, the cast are simply too toned, too vegan, too 21st century, to be taken for the post-war misfits they’re playing. Sydney Chandler is too smooth to be Chrissie Hynde, whose angular look went beyond prettiness. In the role of Hynde’s boyfriend Nick Kent, it would be too much to expect Ferdia Walsh-Peelo to believably play a man who was in turn playing Keith Richards in his daily life.

For those of us who remember the period there’s amusement to be had in identifying which real-life figure each new character is supposed to be. You have to be quick, because within ten seconds the script will have made sure they have introduced themselves. Just as I was thinking the character who sprayed beer on a crowd of punks at a party had to be Billy Idol, he banished any lingering doubt by mentioning Bromley.

Although it tells the story through Jones, played by Toby Wallace – it’s his unhappy home life we are plunged into, his spell in jail for petty thievery we follow and his struggles with stage fright we are invited to identify with – it can’t help being a story about a band, and in that sense it can’t help following the same lines as every film about a band. They actually sit down in the pub and say “we’re getting somewhere with the music – now we need to think about the image”, a line that could have wandered in from a Cliff Richard film.

It seems to take its characters at their own estimation, especially in the apparent far-sightedness of the svengalis Malcolm Maclaren (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Vivienne Westwood (Tallulah Riley), who arguably just saw a parade and positioned themselves at the front of it. At all times people talk as though there’s a journalist present. “What do we think of Steve?” “He’s very damaged, so that’s good.”

Like the Mick Jagger-produced Vinyl, which it resembles in more ways than are ideal, Pistol‘s key drawback is its insistence on the weightiness of the events it depicts. All rock bands are absurd when you look at them in a certain light but Boyle seems determined to avoid that angle. This is the college lecturer’s version of rock history. When Malcolm exhorts Johnny to “show me that rancid brilliance that you have”, we’re not encouraged to laugh. Neither is much made of the fact that the drummer, Paul Cook, comes from a very stable home where his parents even let him practice in their bedroom.

All the standard features of the punk rock history are in place. Poor old Rick Wakeman is deployed in his traditional role of the Thing We Are All Struggling Against. “This is what rock music has become. A mind-numbing sedative for the masses. Another means of control,” preaches Malcolm, who is all of 29. There’s newsreel of the Queen at the beginning. You don’t have to wait more than a minute to see the traditional rubbish piled high in Leicester Square. This last was actually in 1979, by which time the Sex Pistols had broken up, but you can’t keep a good cliché down.

There’s something peculiar about telling the story of a band whose life was so fleeting in a format which is most comfortable with stories that have no ending. By the end of the second 50-minute episode of Pistol, they’ve only got as far as playing their first show. At this point the subsequent four episodes begin to stretch before you like school work that has to be got through. This surely can’t have been the intention.

[See also: Liam Gallagher’s new album is a soporific wade through the swampy waste of Britpop]

“Pistol” is available on Disney+ from 31 May

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