Released in the first world as early as last June, the six-part miniseries of FX is also available in Italy (on Disney +) from 8 September Pistoldedicated to Sex Pistols and directed by Danny Boyle.
Although the events of the “great rock’n’roll scam”, by Sid Vicious, Malcolm McLaren, Johnny Rotten and “Anarchy in the UK” have already been at the center of several films – from the classic The Great Rock and Roll Swindle by Julien Temple a Sid and Nancy, to various documentaries – there was, at least on my part, a certain expectation. What will the director of Trainspotting And 28 days later (but also, speaking of films about music, of the delicious Yesterday) grappling with the great epic of English punk?
The answer is – naive to believe it this time too – to turn it into a hybrid halfway between Dawson’s Creekbut with more drugs, and a de insert The Republic on punk, but with more swear words. And if that sounds like a potentially interesting combo, well it’s not.
Before being disappointed (silly me) I should have checked out as the creator and screenwriter of Pistol is Craig Pearce, the man who ground the meat for Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis meatloaf, released earlier this year. (And that also registically, towards this poor man Pistol and its lo-fi aesthetic that incorporates vintage video and focuses on a fake vintage film format, was pure avant-garde).
Pistol (which in Italian could be translated “Pistola”, perfect for the Lombard market) is based on the memoir of the group’s guitarist Steve Jones, Lonely Boy. The story is therefore mostly told from his point of view, and Jones plays the role of the protagonist (especially in the early stages: then everything unravels inexorably).
It is however – a disclaimer puts his hands forward at the beginning of each episode – of a story inspired from the original events. It is therefore useless to point the finger at the “poetic licenses” – which are very many, and concern the chronology of events but also the whole plant invention of episodes for dramatic purposes (like Nancy who is sent back to the United States to remove her from Sid, or her who returns during the famous performance of “God Save the Queen” on the Thames for a great romantic moment).
Instead, it is interesting to reflect on the operation itself and on the choices of the production, because they bring out some trends in the way of telling the story of pop music on the screen that – it seems to me – are becoming typical of recent years.
– Read also: 10 clichés of rock movies in Bohemian Rhapsody
Phenomenogy of the explanation and the epiphany
One of the main problems of building the plot of Pistol – and which was already found, for example, in Bohemian Rhapsodythe movie about Queen – is that it goes on continuously for epiphanies And explain. At minute 10, to say, the count is already at least 2-3 epiphanies and as many explanations.
What is an epiphany? It is when a turning point is justified with a sudden illumination of one of the protagonists. Of course, it is a fairly common mechanism that allows you to bring passages to the screen that perhaps, in reality, took days or weeks. In Pistol (and in many music films), however, epiphanies are always hideously clumsy. How the stage name is invented Sid Vicious? Simple. A hamster named Sid bites the finger of the future bassist of the Sex Pistols, who instead of exclaiming “Acciderbola!” “Poffarre!” or any other punk exclamation reacts by saying, with great aplomb: “Sid’s really vicious”.
Instead, the explanation is when the screenwriter writes dialogues that no one would ever utter in reality, but which serve various purposes, as my point of reference on the subject Stanis La Rochelle explains very well here.
Pistoltoo busy using the script to develop love affairs and complex childhoods, every now and then – by chance – decides she wants to be a documentary on punk and slips into the dialogues of the pipponi on the subversive value of what we are seeing or hearing.
For instance Malcolm McLaren – performed by a Thomas Brodie-Sangster very effective in the role of the annoying nerd – he takes his role as an anarchist agitator very seriously, and spends half of his screen time agitating and the other half explaining to the other characters what he is doing and why. What he explains, unfortunately, is far below the Wikipedia level, and almost always pleonastic. “Here you see? This is a swastika. But we are not Nazis! ”Or something like that.
We are like that, sweetly complicated
Danny Boyle in some interviews has put some emphasis on how Pistol tells the female component. Vivienne Westwoodfor example, she is portrayed as the true ideologist of the movement, whose thesis is appropriated by the toxic male McLaren.
However, the forced intervention on the screenplay is evident to bring out a female protagonist in the story … which results in an awkward attempt to wink at the viewer by saying «See? We are for gender equality ».
In reality, punk was a movement with a strong feminist and feminist component (see under “Siouxsie”, which in Pistol appears but as a very marginal character, or “Slits”). It was probably enough to shift the focus on those elements … and instead, Boyle and Pearce pull in the future singer of the Pretenders Chrissie Hynde (Sydney Chandler), which was briefly commissioned by SEX, the Westwood boutique where the Sex Pistols were formed. First, they put her at the center of a (made up) love story with Steve Jones, an opportunity to show off a few sex scenes in many positions. Really a lot of sex scenes. And in many locations.
And then they cut out a frustrated character of a young female musician marginalized by bad men. Which in itself could also make sense, were it not that the thing is carried out in such a clumsy way as to make you smile. Like when, on the sidelines of a completely unrelated scene, Hynde telephones “Mick” (who would be Mick Jones, future Clash with whom she actually briefly collaborated, and who never appears in Pistol). We listen to her say on the handset, with a Bambi expression: «Ah… ok… a line-up of men only, I understand».
Family: good. Yoko Ono: bad
15 minutes after the start of the first episode of Pistol, the illusion that one can tell the story of rock musicians without putting in the middle a complex relationship with the father figure has already vanished. It seems that the only way to add depth to a character is to show continuous blurry flashbacks of mistreatment, violence and troubled childhoods (complete with electric trains and teddy bears turned into heroin hiding places).
It is then always and inevitably the group, the band, to become a family surrogate (obviously all male) whose unity needs to being broken by an antagonist who isolates a member within a new, possibly toxic relationship. In the film about Queen she had practically had to invent a boyfriend for Freddie Mercury, in the case of the Sex Pistols the Yoko Ono of the situation was already beautiful and prepared. Nancy Spungenas interpreted by Emma Appletonat times it looks more like a supervillain Marvel what a troubled junkie. To say, one of her first lines is the feral “I was chocked at birth by my umbelical chord, and was diagnosed schizophrenic.” One of the first things anyone does would you say to introduce yourself to a person you don’t know, right?
(It must be said, however, that to lighten everything up, the screenwriter has added a grotesque comic line, with Nancy portrayed on the toilet bowl, complete with cinepanettone noises).
Is this really the only way to tell the history of rock?
John Lydon, who was not included in the making of Pistoltried to take the whole production to court, calling the series a “middle-class fantasy” and a “fairy tale, with little resemblance to reality” among other things.
It’s hard to blame him on both points. As Eileen Jones noted on Jacobin (the piece can be read in Italian on International), the message of disruption and the innovation of punk come out deeply dwarfed by Danny Boyle’s narrative.
By themselves, the adaptations of reality for the purposes of staging are not the problem: the Sex Pistols are now a myth, and the myths are continually reworked. The problem is that the re-elaborations introduced do not aim to build a thesis, to challenge a narrative, to propose a critical look of some kind. They seem designed solely to tell, for the umpteenth time, the exact same story we have seen told in countless musical films.
“Poetic licenses seem to be designed solely to tell, for the umpteenth time, the same, identical story that we have seen told in countless musical films”.
The epic of punk, whose meaning was precisely that of being different from the previous rock epics, that is, it is tamed in a melò affair made up of violent stepfathers and two-dimensional characters, with the aim – I imagine – to make it interesting to the public. However, it was obviously much more interesting before, in its original problematic nature, which could really find some resonance with the spectators, even the younger ones, who have no first-hand knowledge of the cultural phenomena narrated.
On the screen there are Elvis, the Queen, the Sex Pistols, but there could be anyone, because the story is always the same, the characters always the same, the end – dramatic, but with a glimmer of redemption – always the same. The scenes that shoot the vintage films are always the same, reconstructed with meticulous abundance by nerd-directors who imitate the original camera movements and actors who rather than interpret their characters seem to imitate them as if they were at Zelig (yes, I’m talking about you Rami Malek).
“The clichés used to construct these narratives, increasingly worn and just refreshed by a hand of feminism or gender equalitydeep down they inevitably remain bourgeois“.
This sort of is worrying gentrification of the rock narrative, in which everything must always be brought back to a comfortable habit, with the expulsion of all that is problematic, ambiguous, ugly, nuanced. The clichés used to construct these narratives, increasingly worn and just refreshed by a hand of feminism or of gender equalitydeep down they inevitably remain bourgeois.
It’s not good service for any story being told, least of all for the history of punk. If we are no longer able to invent stories, we should at least try not to spoil the ones we already have, right?