This Sex Pistols essay contains spoilers for the FX series Pistol. Check out more analytical breakdowns in Vague Visages’ Film Essays section.
Repugnant! I can’t speak for the punk community, but that was my initial reaction to the announcement that Disney is airing director Danny Boyle’s six-part miniseries about the Sex Pistols. It’s rather astonishing to see the band who took the piss out the hippy movement sell their souls to the corporation synonymous with Mouseketeers and High School Musical (2006). And yet despite these initial reservations, FX’s Pistol (2022) stays true to the chaotic nature of the Sex Pistols and manages to sprinkle in some of that Boyle pop energy. That’s not to say that there aren’t controversial elements at play; after all, it’s the Sex Pistols. How couldn’t there be?
In the spring of 2021, the Sex Pistols’ lead singer, Johnny Rotten, announced that he did not give his consent to Boyle’s production, and it’s been nothing but huffing and puffing from him ever since. In April of 2022, the musician followed up with NME, stating, “Disney has stolen the past and created a fairytale, which bears little resemblance to the truth.” But, in the day and the life of a Sex Pistol, what exactly is THE TRUTH? The band’s semi-disingenuous relationships and contradictory nature make it prime for multiple interpretations, specifically the upside-down relationships among the band members with lead manager Malcolm McLaren, as well as the “love” between Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his partner, Nancy Spungen. Director Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy (1986) may be the most radical and loose portrayal, and serves as a striking contrast to Pistol. Before plunging the axe into these rock ’n’ roll mind screws, let’s first get down to historical brass tacks.
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“I don’t want to fuck you. I want you to fuck the world,” says a fictionalized and energetically punctual Malcolm McLaren (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) to Steve Jones (Toby Wallace) in Pistol. This mantra captures the emotional tone of every jaded youth and blue-collar worker circa 1976. It was a time of economic distress with inflation at 14 percent in England. Add to this a constant barrage of mindless Top of the Pops episodes featuring Boney M.’s “Daddy Cool,” and a fashion sense that was forever stuck in ’66, and it’s easy to why London needed a good kick in the teeth. Still, very few could have predicted the social and political backlash that came from the punk movement. In 1977, the BBC program Brass Tacks laid out in-depth how, within the preceding 12 months, punk rock became a battle cry. Critics viewed punk as a greater threat to late 20th century livelihoods than communism or even hyperinflation itself. Constant clashes arose between the slightly older Teds (the outgoing musically hip generation) and the younger punk youth upstarts in Chelsea’s Kings Road. Religious figures and conservatives wanted to ban the movement and its music. The Brass Tacks feature paints the picture of a suppressed society in need of a hero, or in this case, an anti-hero, and that’s exactly the type of narrative Boyle creates for his viewers in Pistol.
Boyle uses mythology, film and music lore in conjunction with impressive cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle to create intriguing, disturbing drama, akin to The Who’s Quadrophenia (1979). The director presents Pistol through the perspective of Steve Jones (Toby Wallace), guitarist and founder of the Sex Pistols. In the opening segment of his so-called “hero’s journey,” there is imagery of Jones stealing David Bowie’s microphone. Then, out of nowhere, the ghostly sounds of Bowie’s concert start as fleeting whispers slowly creep into the forefront. At this point, bright light fills the venue as Jones travels to the moment in which Ziggy Stardust performs “Moonage Daydream” for the last time. This signifies the future Sex Pistol’s calling to be a rock ‘n’ roll performer, but also suggests that Bowie appointed him and his soon-to-be band as his rightful heirs. Boyle invokes the Arthurian legend as McClaren alludes to Merlin giving Excalibur to Arthur. Boyle even manages to wedge in Elvis’ song medley “An American Trilogy” as Jones straps on his “weapon” for the first time, symbolizing that he has joined the round table of musical legends. Boyle further incorporates the Arthurian legend with the christening of John Simon Ritchie (Louis Partridge) to become Sid Vicious, complete with a prog rock orchestra and close-up of a faux caliber. Just as Arthur was able to bring England out of the dark ages, hope arises that Sid Vicious will do the same with modern music, even if for a short time.
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While Pistol viewers unfamiliar with the history of the Sex Pistols may anticipate a “rags to riches” tale, it’s anything but a Cinderella story. Jones’ troubles include the tension between him and his stepfather, along with his sexual identity and drug use. By reading Jones’ 2016 autobiography, Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol, one learns that the musician was sexually abused by his stepfather, Ron Dambagella, which was the foundation for much of his anxiety. A production highlight in the first Pistol episode involves the guitarist getting intoxicated at a cross-dressing brothel. As the sound of Kiki Dee’s “I’ve Got the Music in Me” fills the room, ecstasy leaves Jones emotionally vulnerable. Visually, the cinematographer wisely employs erratic camera shots as if the Sex Pistol is spreading himself out, all over, all at once. Next, Jones jumps from the stage and Boyle cuts to a horrid flashback featuring the guitarist’s disapproving stepfather. The director splices scenes of Jones trying to get it up with flashes of pornography and a blast of The Who’s “Who Are You.” While the Sex Pistol might pretend that he “ain`t got no trouble in his life,” this isn’t the case.
Unlike Cox’s 1986 film, the primary focus in Boyle’s history of the Sex Pistols is not Sid (Louis Partridge) and Nancy (Emma Appleton). However, the director does devote significant time in Pistol to the relationship and its impact on the band. Boyle presents Sid and Nancy as star-crossed lovers; the former is essentially a representation of all the negative personality traits that Jones is trying to suppress, mostly his violent outbursts and drug habits. The director presents a somewhat softer, more human Nancy than the loud, obnoxious disturbed junkie in Sid and Nancy, as Appleton portrays her character with great balance. Pistol’s version of the woman is a manipulative, strong-headed bad girl and the sort of person who could go into a junkie freakout at any given second.
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In the finale of Pistol, viewers are treated to a sequence of events that can best be described as a punk homage to It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), with Jones taking on the role of James Stewart’s George Bailey and Johnny Rotten (of all people) filling in for Henry Travers’ Clarence. Just as the Sex Pistols guitarist is about to deliberately overdose, Johnny delivers a moral pep talk explaining how, in the end, his bandmate has every right to be upset. Even without Malcolm’s manipulations, the Sex Pistols wouldn’t have survived, with Sid quickly turning into a second-rate B-movie and everyone sharing mutual blame for the results. Ultimately, Boyle chooses to remember the good times, bowing out with the group’s final UK gig for Huddersfield firefighters. The Boyle takeaway is that even the Sex Pistols could put aside their egotism and make a small difference in the lives of the disenfranchised. While this does whitewash the reality that McLaren and Vicious’ mother (a drug user/pusher) play a bigger role in the bassist’s demise, the series paints a wider picture, giving credit for the upstart creativity that blossomed during the Sex Pistols’ tenure.
In Sid and Nancy, Cox goes in raw, turning reality into metaphor; a visual chastisement of Sid Vicious, a fallen idol, and the punk movement turned into vampiric junkies and sellouts. The director presents Sid (Gary Oldman) as an aloof junkie version of Forrest Gump; someone who is constantly going through the motions and only reactionary when he has to be, someone whose primary concern is finding his next fix. However, there are moments when it seems that Sid comes close to genuinely loving Nancy (Chloe Webb).
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Upon Cox’s introduction of Nancy, she appears pale-skinned and bruised all over, with her veins completely damaged beyond repair. It’s almost as if all her vital organs are about to fall out. Given the character’s poorly matched checkered shirt and pants, one gets the distinct impression that she’s a white trash vampire, a complete inversion of a cocky, spunky rockabilly figure. Later, Cox ups the ante on the vamp mystique as Nancy dresses as a bride of Dracula while Sid shoots his rendition of “My Way.” Even a bullet to the heart won’t keep these monsters down. The monster metaphor is prevalent as early as the couple’s first hook-up/shoot-up, as an ominous lightning bolt flashes across the screen, almost as if Sid is being turned into a Frankenstein monster of his former self. Once the monster mash couple has tied the knot, cinematographer Roger Deakins highlights the insular nature of this symbiotic (unsexy) relationship by framing Sid and Nancy separately from the other subjects on screen. It’s as if they are surrounded by a series of invisible walls. Cox and Deakins exemplify this especially well in “The Queen Silver Jubilee” scene. As Sid and Nancy embark on a sightseeing boat, the director positions them inside a master tracking shot, one in which the characters move straight towards the camera, blissfully unaware of the police throttling their friends are receiving, too high to realize the political ramifications of their “God Save the Queen” parody. All they care about is moving onto their next score. Joe Strummer’s “Love Kills” kicks in full blast, indicating that Sid is being led on a descent to his death. Cox reinforces this notion in his recreation of “My Way,” the original of which is included as the endnote of Julian Temples’ highly controversial The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980). Cox cleverly alters this theatrical enactment so much that Sid pulls a pistol rather than a toy gun, and hits Malcolm and Nancy along with others, implicating them as the source of his downfall.
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Nancy serves as Cox’s metaphor for Sid’s addiction to heroin and his destructive, corrupt and greedy rock ‘n roll lifestyle. At the midpoint of Sid and Nancy, a methadone caseworker (Sy Richardson) lays it all out for the audience. He boldly proclaims that “smack is the great controller.” He then proceeds to admonish Sid and Nancy for not having any right to be strung out on drugs when they could sell healthy anarchy. In hindsight, this scene lands as rather naïve. Even before Nancy and the Sex Pistols, Vicious had a notorious drug habit and questionable people skills. However, as pointed out in Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming (1991), by 1978, the theatrical violence of the era quickly turned to one of literal violence, and rather than being carried out by 16-year olds, the aggressors were skinheads. This does beg the question of why Vicious could not have gotten his act together and hung up his swastika (which he strictly wore for trolling and promoting the band’s “edginess”) and, in some manner, become a figurehead for Rock Against Racism. But instead, as hypothesized in Cox’s flick, there’s cash to be had.
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Unlike Cox, Boyle presents more than the downfall of male power fantasies; as Chrissie Hynde (Sydney Chandler) points out in Pistol, this is about equal opportunity, hence the show’s heavy emphasis on the female punk perspective subverting sensual expectations and putting the male perspective under the microscope. The big moment comes at the outset of episode 2, as Pamela Rooke’s (Maisie Williams) chasm is on full display, along with dominatrix gear. Later on, Rooke explains to Jones that her exposure is part of a vulva-powered revolution (“being seen is a political act”). Mantle, the cinematographer, honors this decision by never having the camera linger on Rooke for too long during her tumultuous train commute, thus subverting the male gaze.
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Ultimately, there may never be a definitive take on the Sex Pistols. Among all the opinionated documentaries and rumors that circulate, it’s hard to pin down any of them as 100 percent accurate. On the subject of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen alone, Cox presents viewers with a surreal odyssey, one that explores the paranoid minds of two wannabe outlaws with over-the-top drug usage and domestic violence. Sid and Nancy aligns in tone with Alice Cooper’s 1975 song “Only Women Bleed.” Boyle, on the other hand, plays it moderately safe, showing only a little bit of drug usage but heavily emphasizing unhealthy obsessions and fanatical loyalty. In Pistol, the way that Nancy schemes to catapult Sid to the forefront of the Sex Pistols’ limelight almost makes her out to be a sort of Lady Macbeth. I prefer to focus on the creative energy that blossomed and orbited around the Sex Pistols, such as Rooke, whose “powerful androgyny” and sex-positive attitude continues to reverberate in modern female performers like Halsey and Billie Eilish. As for punk, while superior bands like Joy Division, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts and Dead Kennedys did come along, at no other point in modern musical youth culture was the status quo challenged as hard. The Sex Pistols, complete with all their unpleasantries, were a major part of the punk revolution that urged an entire generation to think about ideas such as anti-authoritarianism, anti-corporatism, racial equality and health rights. One just hopes that the next juvenile revolutionaries take their mistakes to heart.
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Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.