For a movement that aims to shock the masses and stab a safety pin in social claims, punk also had a moral streak. It saw itself as a pure corrective to bloated, baroque rock music and noble, distant rock stars. In “Pistol,” Danny Boyle’s rock biopic of the Sex Pistols, John Lydon (Anson Boon), aka Johnny Rotten, claims his group is “the most honest band that ever existed.”
Fact check: It’s complicated. The Pistols were certainly blunt—to the public, to their fans, to each other. But they were also, as Pistol recounts, an invention, a carefully crafted feat by impresario Malcolm McLaren (Thomas Brodie-Sangster, The Queen’s Gambit), mischievous rock ‘n’ Rumpelstiltskin, who exacted a heavy price for them spinning gold.
Was the band a necessary explosion of power chord frankness or, to borrow the title of Julien Temple’s later mockumentary about them, one big rock ‘n’ roll hoax? In pop culture, both can be true. Two very different new shows – Pistol, about British rebellion, and Angelyne, about California-style self-invention – suggest that an artificial creation can 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 a love of the Pistols’ howling mayhem. But this tale of gobs spitting yobs turns into a busy production as bombastic and overly delicate as a prog rock keyboard solo.
The six-part “Pistol” is based on the memoir “Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol” by the band’s guitarist Steve Jones. (The series — take a deep breath — is an FX production that won’t air on FX, but will air all six episodes on Hulu Tuesday because that’s what television is in 2022.) This is what Jones (Toby Wallace ) to the main character. Character see if he is suitable for the job or not.
Jones, a vicious baby-faced hormonal bundle who escaped an abusive home, takes a break by meeting McLaren, a casual music exec who runs transgressive boutique SEX with designer Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley). McLaren transforms Jones from singer to guitarist in his band, the Swankers, renamed the Sex Pistols, and finds his frontman in the clever, mocking Lydon.
Jones can’t play the guitar. Lydon isn’t sure if he can sing. But that doesn’t matter to McLaren, a capitalist Robespierre prone to statements like “I don’t want musicians, I want saboteurs!”
McLaren’s true talent is casting, and Pistol excels at that part of the audition as well. Boon captures Lydon’s spiky ruggedness (and hair) and gives him a disarming thoughtfulness. The concert scenes that make up much of the Pistols’ short catalog explode with insane violence.
But while “Pistol” looks and sounds plenty of the role, it struggles with the lyrics. It aims to place the band in the larger context of economically and culturally stagnant 1970s Britain, but at heart it’s standard tragedy behind the music. Things get worse when the band recruits Lydon’s sidekick Sid Vicious (Louis Partridge), who can handle a broken bottle better than the bass and makes the “pistol” reconsider the footage of the movie “Sid and Nancy.”
Boyle’s pushy direction suggests a higher ambition but stands in his way. The series underscores key moments in three ways; When Sid’s “vicious” hamster bites him and gives him his nickname, you expect a bell to ring. Above all, Pistol loves explanatory documentary material. When Lydon leaves the band and Sid Vicious, who replaces him on vocals, agrees to record “My Way,” we get a clip from Frank Sinatra so you don’t miss the reference.
The most interesting material on “Pistol” lies just outside the band’s sphere of influence, specifically their attention to how punk fashion intersected with music – and even predated it. (Alongside Westwood, punk fashion icon Jordan — Maisie Williams, far removed from Winterfell in a mop of dyed hair — presides over the series like a messenger from the future.) But that theme is sidelined by the rock star story as much as it is was in life.
“Pistol” is aware of the advantage its rocker dudes had in claiming the revolutionary glory denied to female rebels. Westwood tells McLaren he does little more than adopt their ideas about creative destruction, but adds, “I’m used to it.”
But the series tends to neglect its women themselves. “Pistol” makes it clear that Jones’ friend and sometimes lover, Chrissie Hynde (Sydney Chandler), who will eventually lead the Pretenders, is the more gifted and disciplined musician. But just as she’s frustrated at breaking into the boys’ club, her character on “Pistol” often reverts to a sitcom-like role as a sane best friend.
The series keeps looking at intriguing fringe figures, such as Episode 3’s portrayal of “Pauline” (Bianca Stephens), the mentally ill woman who inspired Lydon’s lyrics to “Bodies.” Just as the Sex Pistols became a repository for McLaren’s whims and imaginations, “Pistol” becomes a vehicle for interjecting more interesting stories that occasionally fall from the trunk of the tour van as it speeds down a familiar road.
At first glance, Peacock’s “Angelyne” has little in common with “Pistol”. He explores the mystery and will to fame of his title character (Emmy Rossum, “Shameless”), who became an icon in the 1980s by posing as a hooded ornament on Los Angeles billboards.
But this sex goddess, like the Sex Pistols, is also a pop culture work of art whose original creation has its roots in the Los Angeles punk scene. She’s her own Malcolm McLaren, and she’s as comfortable 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 star, 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 work. Rossum, who has directed the project for years, gets a spectacular acting performance (complete with the sort of body armor-to-prosthetic transformation that’s a must in current docudrama). Nancy Oliver and Allison Miller, the creator and showrunner, give the series a shrewd feminist underpinning under its hard candy shell.
Finally, Angelyne’s performance is a critique of objectification. She’s made herself an exaggeration of what pop culture wanted from women, manifesting itself in decades of starlets and sex kittens. Her appeal, “Angelyne” understands, came not only from her artificial curves, but also from holding back her secrets in a culture that sees bombs like hers as ripe for looting.
Its origins eventually surfaced in a 2017 Hollywood Reporter exposé, the raw footage of which relays the series through intrusive mock interviews with characters, many of whom have been renamed, slightly fictionalized versions of real people. We hear from Jeff Glaser (Alex Karpovsky), the reporter tracking down Angelyne’s story; Harold Wallach (Martin Freeman), the businessman she gets to support her billboard campaign; her aide and fan club president (Hamish Linklater); and Angelyne herself, perched on a love seat shaped like two pink lips, who intervenes to deny versions of other events.
Through this documentary “Rashomon” device, “Angelyne,” like Angelyne herself, works to control the viewer’s perception. For example, one might conclude that Angelyne was an influencer before Instagram, a Kardashian before reality TV, an accomplished interpreter of how women rise to power. But you don’t have to – “Angelyne” does it for you, over and over again.
The series is at its strongest, even transcendent, when it gives the talking minds a break and takes imaginative flight. The final episode, which delves deep into Angelyne’s biography, is almost theatrical as the characters step out and comment on their situation. It dramatizes the story set out in the Hollywood Reporter investigation, then shifts the focus to Angelyne’s imagination of herself as a space-faring alien who has come to relieve earthlings of earthly boredom.
Maybe Angelyne is a plastic idol. But what’s so great about authenticity? What’s so important about nailing down the facts about a meta-celebrity’s origins compared to the glamor concoction she offered to a city of drivers stuck at traffic lights? Perhaps, Angelyne suggests, in the midst of a television landscape littered with “true story” drama, a story can be true even if it isn’t real.
Back on planet Earth, the real Angelyne has criticized the series (the same reaction you’d expect from Rossum’s version of her). But for this viewer, at least, it’s a sincere homage to a pinup’s parthenogenesis. Angelyne, it is argued, became her own work of pop art — even if, to paraphrase the Sex Pistols’ “EMI,” she did it purely for fame.