For a movement committed to shocking the masses and putting a safety pin in social pretensions, punk also had a moral slant. It saw itself as a pure correction for bloated, baroque rock music and chic, remote rock stars. In “Pistol”, Danny Boyle’s rock bio of the Sex Pistols, John Lydon (Anson Boon), aka Johnny Rotten, claims that 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” puts it, an invention, a carefully curated trick of the impresario Malcolm McLaren (Thomas Brodie-Sangster, “The Queen’s Gambit”), the mischievous rock ‘n’ Rumpelstiltskin who demanded a high price for spin them into gold.
Was the band a necessary burst of power chord candor, or, to borrow the title of the eventual Julien Temple mockumentary over them, a great rock and roll scam? In pop culture, both things 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 love for the howling mayhem of the Pistols. But this tale of whoppers spewing blobs turns into a busy production that’s just as bombastic and overly filigree as a prog-rock keyboard solo.
The six-piece “Pistol” is based on the memoir “Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol” by the band’s guitarist, Steve Jones. (The series – deep breath – is an FX production that will not air on FX, but will drop all six episodes on Hulu Tuesday, because this is what TV is in 2022.) This makes Jones (Toby Wallace) the point of – check character, whether he is suitable for the job or not.
Jones, a baby-faced, miscreant bundle of hormones who escaped from an abusive home, catches a break by meeting McLaren, a music executive who runs the transgressive boutique SEX with designer Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley). McLaren rearranges Jones from vocalist to guitarist in his band, the Swankers, renamed the Sex Pistols, and finds his frontman in the smart, mocking Lydon.
Jones doesn’t know how to play guitar. Lydon isn’t sure if he can sing. But this doesn’t matter to McLaren, a capitalist Robespierre who makes statements like “I don’t want musicians, I want saboteurs!”
McLaren’s real talent is casting, and “Pistol” pulls out this part of the audition as well. Boon captures Lydon’s spiky roughness (and hair) and gives him a disarming thoughtfulness. The concert scenes, which represent much of the Pistols’ short catalog, explode with frantic violence.
But while “Pistol” looks and sounds ample, it struggles with the lyrics. It’s meant to place the band in the larger context of an economically and culturally stagnant 1970s Britain, but essentially it’s a standard tragedy behind the music. That gets even more so when Lydon’s band recruits Sid Vicious (Louis Partridge), who is more adept at broken bottle than bass, and leads “Pistol” to re-watch material from the movie “Sid and Nancy.” .
Boyle’s pushy direction suggests a higher ambition, but it gets in the way. The series underlines threefold important moments; when Sid’s “cruel” hamster bites him and gives him his nickname, you expect a bell to ring. “Pistol” is especially fond of explanatory documentary images. When Lydon leaves the band and Sid Vicious, who replaces him on vocals, agrees to record “My Way” we get a clip of Frank Sinatra so you don’t miss the reference.
The most interesting material in “Pistol” is just outside the band’s orbit, especially the focus on how punk fashion cut – and even preceded – the music. (Besides Westwood, punk fashion icon Jordan—Maisie Williams, straying far from Winterfell in a clump of dyed hair—leads the series like a messenger from the future.) But this theme is overshadowed by the rock star story, just as it was in life.
“Pistol” is aware of the advantage his rocker dudes had in claiming the revolutionary credit being denied female rebels. Westwood tells McLaren he doesn’t do much more than adopt her ideas of creative destruction, but adds: “I’m used to it.”
But the series tends to shortchange its women itself. “Pistol” makes it clear that Jones’ friend and sometime lover Chrissie Hynde (Sydney Chandler), who will eventually front the Pretenders, is the more gifted and disciplined musician. But just as she’s frustrated with breaking into the boys’ club, her character in “Pistol” often falls into a sitcom-esque sensible-best-wife-friend role.
The series repeatedly flashes at intriguing peripheral characters, such as in 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 ideas, ‘Pistol’ becomes a vehicle for throwing in more interesting stories, occasionally falling out of the back of the van as it travels along a familiar road.
At first glance, Peacock’s “Angelyne” has little in common with “Pistol”. It explores the mystery and celebrity will of the title character (Emmy Rossum, “Shameless”), who made himself an icon by posing as a hood ornament on Los Angeles billboards in the 1980s.
But this sex goddess, like the Sex Pistols, is also a pop culture artifice whose self-creation has roots in the Los Angeles punk scene. She’s her own Malcolm McLaren, and she’s as comfortable in her myth-making 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 to be who she is, you have to do a lot. Rossum, who led the project for years, gets a spectacular acting show (complete with the kind of body armor-prosthesis transformation that is de rigueur in current docudramas). Nancy Oliver and Allison Miller, the creator and showrunner, give the series an astute feminist foundation under its hard candy shell.
Angelyne’s performance is after all a critique of objectification. She exaggerated herself of what women’s pop culture wanted, as evidenced by decades of starlets and sex kittens. Her allure, understands “Angelyne,” came not just from her manipulated curves, but from hiding her secrets in a culture that sees bombshells like her as ripe for looting.
Her origins eventually emerged in a 2017 Hollywood Reporter exposé, the raw material of which the series relays through intrusive mock interviews with characters, many of them renamed, slightly fictionalized versions of real people. We hear from Jeff Glaser (Alex Karpovsky), the reporter tracking Angelyne’s story; Harold Wallach (Martin Freeman), the businessman she charms to support her billboard campaign; her assistant and fan club president (Hamish Linklater); and Angelyne herself, crowned on a love seat in the form of two pink lips, who intervenes to dispute the versions of the events of others.
Through this docu-‘Rashomon’ device, ‘Angelyne’, like Angelyne herself, works to control the viewer’s perception of it. For example, you might conclude that Angelyne was an influencer before Instagram, a Kardashian for reality TV, a shrewd interpreter of the ways women access power. But you don’t have to – “Angelyne” does it for you repeatedly.
The series is at its strongest, even transcendent, when it gives the talking heads a pause and an imaginative flight. The final episode, which delves deep into Angelyne’s biography, is almost theatrical in the way characters go outside of themselves and comment on their situations. It dramatizes the touching story set forth in the Hollywood Reporter investigation, then shifts the focus to Angelyne’s fantasy of herself as a space-faring alien, coming to free Earthlings from terrestrial boredom.
Maybe Angelyne is a plastic idol. But what’s so great about authenticity? What’s so important about getting the facts of a meta-celebrity’s origins, compared to the concoction of glamor that she offered a city of motorists stuck at traffic lights? Perhaps, in a TV landscape filled with “true” dramas, “Angelyne” suggests, 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 it is at least a sincere tribute to the parthenogenesis of a pin-up. Angelyne, she argues, became her own pop art work — even if she did, to paraphrase the Sex Pistols’ “EMI,” just for the sake of fame.