For a movement dedicated to shocking the masses and driving a safety pin into social pretensions, punk also had a moral bent. He saw himself as a pure corrective to bloated baroque rock music and aloof chic rock stars. In “Pistol,” the rock biography of Danny Boyle’s Sex Pistols, John Lydon (Anson Boon), aka Johnny Rotten, calls his band “the most honest band that ever existed.”
Checking the facts: it’s complicated. The Pistols were certainly direct – to the public, to their fans, to each other. But they were also, as “Pistol” puts it, an invention, a carefully assembled artifice of impresario Malcolm McLaren (Thomas Brodie-Sangster, “The Queen’s Gambit”), the mischievous rock ‘n’ Rumpelstiltskin who demanded a high price. to turn them into gold.
Was the band a necessary outburst of power-chord candor, or, to borrow the title of Julien Temple’s eventual mockumentary about them, a grand rock ‘n’ roll scam? In pop culture, both things can be true. Two starkly different new shows — ‘Pistol,’ about British rebellion, and ‘Angelyne,’ about California-style self-invention — suggest that a man-made creation may be more real than reality.
“Pistol”, as a series, is something of a contradiction. Directed by Boyle and written by Craig Pearce, it celebrates the punk spirit of authenticity and exudes love for the howling mayhem of the Pistols. But this story of yobs spitting gobs turns into a busy production that’s as explosive and overly filigree as a prog-rock keyboard solo.
The six-part “Pistol” is based on the memoir “Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol” by band guitarist Steve Jones. (The series — deep breath — is an FX production that won’t air on FX but will drop all six episodes on Hulu on Tuesday, because that’s what TV is in 2022.) That makes Jones (Toby Wallace) the point should be the character, whether or not he is suitable for the job.
A miscreant, baby-faced hormone pack that escaped an abusive home, Jones takes a break from meeting McLaren, an on-and-off music executive who runs the transgressive boutique SEX with designer Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley). McLaren recasts Jones from singer to guitarist in his band, the Swankers, which is renamed the Sex Pistols, and finds its leader in the intelligent and sneering Lydon.
Jones can’t play the guitar. Lydon isn’t sure he can sing. But that’s okay for McLaren, a capitalist Robespierre accustomed to statements like “I don’t want musicians, I want saboteurs!”
McLaren’s real talent is casting, and ‘Pistol’ nails that part of the audition as well. Boon captures Lydon’s spiky aggression (and hair) and pays him disarming attention. The concert stages, which replicate much of the Pistols’ brief catalog, explode with delirious violence.
But while “Pistol” amply looks and sounds the part, it struggles with the lyrics. It aims to place the band in the wider context of economically and culturally stagnant Britain in the 1970s, but at heart it’s a classic tragedy behind the music. It becomes all the more so once the band recruits Lydon’s sidekick, Sid Vicious (Louis Partridge), who is more adept with a broken bottle than the bass, and leads “Pistol” to revisit the material of the “Sid and Nancy” movie.
Boyle’s intrusive direction suggests higher ambition, but it gets in his way. The series highlights three key moments; when Sid’s “vicious” hamster bites him, giving him his nickname, a bell is expected to ring. “Pistol” is particularly fond of explanatory documentary sequences. When Lydon leaves the band and Sid Vicious, his replacement on vocals, agrees to record “My Way,” we get a Frank Sinatra clip, lest you miss the reference.
Just outside the band’s orbit is “Pistol’s” most interesting material, particularly its attention to how punk fashion intersected with — and even predated — music. (Besides Westwood, punk fashion icon Jordan—Maisie Williams, straying far from Winterfell in a clash of dyed hair—presides over the series as a messenger from the future.) But that theme is overshadowed by the story of the rock star, just like it was in life.
“Pistol” is aware of the advantage its rocker dudes had in claiming the revolutionary credit denied to rebellious women. Westwood tells McLaren he’s doing little more than co-opting his ideas about creative destruction, but adds: “I’m used to it.”
But the series tends to short-circuit its women themselves. “Pistol” makes it clear that Jones’ friend and sometimes lover, Chrissie Hynde (Sydney Chandler), who would eventually lead the Pretenders, is the most gifted and disciplined musician. But just as she’s frustrated breaking into the boys’ club, her “Pistol” character often falls into a sensitive sitcom-like best friend role.
The series repeatedly turns to intriguing peripheral characters, such as in Episode 3’s portrayal of “Pauline” (Bianca Stephens), the mentally ill woman who inspired Lydon’s lyrics for “Bodies.” Just as the Sex Pistols have become a repository of McLaren’s quirks and notions, “Pistol” becomes a vehicle to launch more interesting stories, which sometimes drop from the back of the tour van as it travels down a familiar road. .
At first glance, Peacock’s “Angelyne” has little in common with “Pistol.” It explores the mystery and drive to stardom of its title character (Emmy Rossum, “Shameless”), who became an icon by posing as a hooded ornament on Los Angeles billboards in the 1980s.
But this sex goddess, like the Sex Pistols, is also a work of pop culture artifice, whose self-creation has its roots in the Los Angeles punk scene. She’s her very own Malcolm McLaren, and she’s as comfortably seated in her mythmaking as she is in the driver’s seat of her pink Corvette. First as a singer in her boyfriend’s sad band, then as a professional celebrity, she lives by the credo: “I don’t want to be famous for what I do. I want to be famous for who I am.
But being who she is takes a lot of effort. Rossum, who has helmed the project over the years, gets a spectacular acting showcase (with the kind of prosthetic body armor transformation that’s de rigueur in today’s docudramas). Nancy Oliver and Allison Miller, the creator and showrunner, give the series a shrewd feminist foundation beneath its hard candy shell.
Angelyne’s performance, after all, is a critique of objectification. She made herself an exaggeration of what pop culture wanted from women, as evidenced by decades of starlets and sex kittens. Her appeal, “Angelyne” understands, comes not just from her artificial curves, but from withholding her secrets in a culture that sees bombshells like her as ripe for plunder.
Its origins finally emerged in a 2017 Hollywood Reporter expose, the raw material of which is relayed by the series through intrusive fake interviews with characters, many of whom have been renamed, slightly fictionalized versions of real people. We hear from Jeff Glaser (Alex Karpovsky), the reporter investigating Angelyne’s story; Harold Wallach (Martin Freeman), the businessman she charms into supporting her poster campaign; his assistant and fan club president (Hamish Linklater); and Angelyne herself, enthroned on a loveseat shaped like two pink lips, who steps in to challenge others’ versions of events.
Thanks to this “Rashomon” docu-device, “Angelyne”, like Angelyne herself, works to control the viewer’s perception of it. You might conclude, for example, that Angelyne was an influencer before Instagram, a Kardashian before reality TV, a savvy interpreter of how women rise to power. But you don’t need it – “Angelyne” does it for you, repeatedly.
The series is strongest, even transcendent, when it gives talking heads a break and takes imaginative flight. The final episode, which dives deep into Angelyne’s biography, is almost theatrical in the way the characters come out of themselves and comment on their situations. It dramatizes the backstory story exposed in The Hollywood Reporter’s investigation, then focuses on Angelyne’s fantasy of herself as a space-traveling alien who has come to liberate Earthlings from the earthly boredom.
Angelyne may be a plastic idol. But what’s so great about authenticity? What’s so important about getting the facts about a meta-celebrity’s origins so important, versus the concoction of glamor it offered to a city of motorists stuck at traffic lights? Perhaps, suggests “Angelyne” amid a TV landscape cluttered with “true story” dramas, a story can be true even if it isn’t real.
Back on planet Earth, the real Angelyne slammed the show (the same reaction you’d expect from Rossum’s version). But for this viewer, at least, it’s a heartfelt tribute to the parthenogenesis of a pin-up girl. Angelyne, he claims, became her own work of Pop Art – even if, to paraphrase the Sex Pistols’ “EMI”, she only did it “for glory”.