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Recommended: Pistol on Hulu

It's not very punk rock, but Danny Boyle's new Sex Pistols miniseries is plenty entertaining.
  • Louis Partridge and Anson Boon in Pistol (Photo: Miya Mizuno/FX)
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    Pistol | Hulu
    Six-Episode Limited Series (Musical Biopic) | TV-MA

    What's Pistol About?

    The brief, thrashing heyday of the Sex Pistols gets the biopic treatment in this six-part look at how four London punks became one of the most influential bands in history.

    Who's involved?

    • Craig Pearce, who's written almost every Baz Luhrmann film, is the series creator. Just like in Moulin Rouge! or Strictly Ballroom, he's guided by the reckless energy of artists who get their thrills from expressing themselves, and he molds almost every scene around the payoff of somebody letting it all hang out.
    • He's got a like-minded collaborator in Danny Boyle, who's both an executive producer and the director of all six episodes. From Trainspotting to Billions to 28 Days Later, Boyle has frequently mixed film stocks and light levels, cut off scenes mid-conversation, and blasted in music cues to communicate the cracked energy of not just a character, but an entire world. He deploys similar techniques here to suggest all the neglect, rage, horniness, and insecurity that pushed the Sex Pistols and their young friends to birth a movement.
    • Speaking of the Pistols: They're played by actors few Americans will recognize. Toby Wallace is Steve Jones, the band's founder and the focal point for this series. Louis Partridge is Sid Vicious, the short-lived bassist who was accused of killing his girlfriend. Anson Boon is Johnny Rotten, the lead vocalist and mad genius lyricist.
    • Thomas Brodie-Sangster (The Queen's Gambit) is Malcolm MacLaren, whose quest to upend Britain's social order leads him to manage the band.
    • Sydney Chandler, also a newcomer, plays Chrissie Hynde, who spends years hanging out with this crew before going on to found The Pretenders.
    • Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones) is Pamela "Jordan" Rooke, a fashion icon in the punk scene who designs the Pistols' looks.

    Why (and to whom) do we recommend it?

    Even though their only album was released by a professional label and sold millions upon millions of copies worldwide, the Sex Pistols really did create music that rebuked mainstream society. The same can't be said of this series. Pearce and Boyle inject it with the vibrant life, but this is still a traditional piece of storytelling, where childhood traumas explain adult behaviors, where love stories work their way into tales of hit songs, and where biographical facts are distorted or invented in order to make for a more conventionally satisfying narrative.

    That said, anyone who can accept the mainstreaming of punk's first prophets should throughly enjoy themselves. The Pistols are irresistible subjects, and the show effectively imbues their bad behavior with complicated shades of decency, earnestness, and even vulunerability. Boon is especially wonderful as Johnny Rotten (a.k.a. John Lydon). In real life, he's often come across as a spiteful narcissist, but here he seems like a kid trying to protect his rich inner life with a hard shell of antisocial behavior. If that means the fictionalized character is more obviously empathetic than the real public figure, then so be it. (Predictably, the actual Rotten sued to keep Pistols music from appearing in this series. He lost.)

    Pistol also manages the neat trick of delivering loads of exposition without dragging down the pace. Casual fans might not know, for instance, that MacLaren owned a fashion boutique with Vivienne Westwood (played by Talulah Riley), and that Chrissie Hynde worked there with Jordan just as the various Pistols started hanging around. That's a head-spinning number of icons digging through racks of shoes, but instead of underlining the historical import, the episodes teach us who these people are through organic conversations and urgent situations. There's no flash-forward to the sixtysomething versions of the characters remembering it all from the comfort of their limos, and there are no cheap moments where, say, someone tells Chrissie Hynde she's just a pretender.

    To put it another way, the show focuses on what these characters need in the moment, whether that's a place to sleep, a green card, or a new rehearsal venue. It doesn't feel like everything they say and do is crafted as a blinking arrow pointing us toward their eventual transformation into rock stars — as though that stardom is the only reason to care about them. By honoring the small beats of their early lives, Pistol makes them all feel like human beings instead of cheap excuses to get to the first performance of "Anarchy in the U.K."

    One need only revisit the awkward scene-setting of movies like Bohemian Rhapsody or Respect to be reminded that most musical biopics fail to pull this off. That level of screenwriting craft makes Pistol succeed as entertainment, and even punk rockers who spat on their audience as part of the show can benefit from a touch this deft.

    Pairs well with

    • The Boys (Prime Video), Amazon's snotty series about superheroes who take down other heroes for abusing their power.
    • Vinyl (HBO), Martin Scorsese's short-lived series about the various music scenes in 1970s New York.
    • The Go-Go's, Showtime's spectacular documentary about a band that, in their own way, were just as punk as the Pistols.

  • Pistol
    The entire series streams on Hulu Tuesday, May 31
    Created by: Craig Pearce.
    Starring: Toby Wallace, Louis Partridge, Anson Boon, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Maisie Williams, Sydney Chandler, and Talulah Riley.
    Directed by: Danny Boyle.

    TOPICS: Pistol, Hulu, Anson Boon, Craig Pearce, Danny Boyle, Louis Partridge, Maisie Williams, Sydney Chandler, Talulah Riley, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Toby Wallace