Screenwriter Craig Pearce recently teamed up with Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle on Pistolthe biographical drama depicting the rise and fall of legendary British punk-rock band, the Sex Pistols. The miniseries introduces the audience to numerous key figures who played a part in the band’s formation and career, and focuses heavily on the hands-on involvement from the band’s manager, Malcolm McLaren. The inspiration for the drama came from the Pistols’ founder and guitarist Steve Jones‘autobiography, Lonely Boy, and so viewers are shown an insider’s look at the band’s story. However, Pistols’ lead singer John Lydon has spoken out against the project, and refused to have any part in the production. This disavowal of the project, in addition to the dramatized nature of the series, leads to some discrepancies over what really happened back in the 1970s as the band came to notoriety and cemented their status as punk legends. So just how accurate is the series?
It’d be amiss to not start with the show’s portrayal of Lydon, widely known as “Johnny Rotten.” Despite Lydon’s refusal to license any music for the series, Boyle was able to make use of the band’s catalog thanks to an agreement the members made back in 1998, allowing for a majority vote to be decisive in licensing disputes. After lawsuits, and public disapproval towards Boyle and the other band members, it’s crystal clear what Lydon’s stance is, and unsurprisingly he played no part in the project. Unfortunately for actor Anson Boon, who starred as Rotten, this meant he did not have the ability to consult with Lydon on the role, a privilege afforded to the rest of the actors playing the band members. As a result, Boon spent a huge amount of time studying the intricacies of Lydon’s persona, and this clearly shows on screen. This eccentric and eye-catching portrayal of the Pistols ‘frontman is one of the series’ high points, and is a testament to Boon’s abilities. When comparing the young actor’s portrayal to the real life performances, there’s a startling similarity. As far as accuracy goes, this is pretty spot-on, and is made all the more impressive considering the absence of Lydon in the project.
Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood
Thomas Brodie-Sangster puts on a standout performance as music mogul Malcolm McLaren. He portrays the notorious promoter as innovative yet ruthless. Possessed by the idea of infamy, he shows no care for the people around him, cutting members from the band without a second thought. This causes friction between the members, which is a success in McLaren’s mind. This depiction of McLaren’s demeanor is an accurate portrayal of him and the antics shown throughout the series really did happen. The series shows a scene of the band being apprehended by the police on the River Thames as they staged a performance outside the Houses of Parliament. This event took place in the real world, and McLaren was overjoyed with the arrests as it gave the band publicity, further showing his lack of care and compassion. After the fall of the Sex Pistols, McLaren explained how he had the whole career of the band planned out, something continuously alluded to by Brodie-Sangster in the series. Unfortunately for McLaren, he was taken to court by the former Pistols’ members and lost the rights to everything the band had been involved in.
In addition to McLaren’s less-than-caring relationship with the band, the series also highlights his relationship with fashion designer. Vivienne Westwoodplayed in the show by Talulah Riley. McLaren and Westwood were publicly dating for several years and even had a son together. The two are shown running the small boutique, SEX. This was a real life occurrence, and the shop became one of the hotspots for punk culture in England. In fact, this was the place the band members were recruited, another element the series accurately reflects.
Bassist Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen had a relationship which has since become an important part of punk history. Their relationship was tumultuous, violent, and fueled by drugs. Many have thought of their relationship as the downfall of the Sex Pistols, due to Sid becoming fixated on his American partner. At one point, Pistol shows a ploy from McLaren and the band to kidnap Nancy, and they successfully trick her into flying back to the United States. In reality, McLaren has admitted that there was such a plan at one point, but it was not something that really happened. It seems to be an example of dramatic exaggeration used by the show’s creators to further the sense of anarchy within the group.
The death of Nancy has long been a matter of public interest. From what we know, a party was held by Sid and Nancy, in which both took copious amounts of drugs. Nancy was found dead on the bathroom floor the next day by hotel staff, appearing to have been stabbed. The series depicts this in a clever way, keeping the sense of ambiguity surrounding her death. We see her on the bathroom floor after her death, and Sid breaks down upon discovering her, seemingly unable to remember what had transpired. Sid was arrested for her murder, but was released on bail and died by overdose before he could be brought to trial. By keeping this element of the Pistols’ history unclear, the creators allow the audience of today to have the thoughts of the public at the time of the event.
Chrissie Hynde is now well-known as the lead singer of the rock band The Pretenders, but before this she was closely associated with the Sex Pistols, particularly Steve Jones. Like Jones and the rest of the band, she was also managed by McLaren. This was the link that allowed Jones and Hynde to become acquainted. The series depicts the two of them in a sporadic affair, often sleeping with each other in times of turmoil. It’s unclear to what extent this is true, but Hynde has previously confirmed she engaged in a sexual relationship with Jones.
Hynde is American, and as such found herself struggling with work permit regulations in England. At one point, she tried to convince Jones to marry her in order to help her secure a permit. Jones went along with this, but after becoming unavailable, Rotten stepped in and volunteered himself. The plan ultimately never transpired, and this whole story is told accurately in the FX miniseries.
Jones’ autobiography, along with the consultancy of the majority of the band, has allowed for an accurate biopic to be created. There are some exaggerations for effect, but the majority of the series is a good representation of what life was really like for the legendary punk band.