LONDON – “Are we spitting?” asked a man in the crowd at the 100 Club, a small red-walled underground space that smells of spilled beer, cigarette smoke and a thousand lost nights, just off Oxford Street in London.
Yes, there would be spitting. The club was the setting for an early Sex Pistols performance, which was remade last June for “Pistol”, a six-part series about the British band, directed by Danny Boyle and streamed on Hulu in the United States and Disney+ in other territories. from May 31.
The Sex Pistols were the “philosophers and the dress code” of the punk revolution, said Boyle, who seemed to be everywhere on set, chatting with the extras about audience behavior, checking cameras and staring intently at monitors as the actors played the song. performed “Bodies” and the crowd went wild.
“I tried to make the series in a chaotic way that was true to the Pistols’ manifesto,” Boyle said in a recent interview. That meant an experimental approach to filming: “We were just shooting entire scenes, entire performances, not knowing whether we had shot the ‘right’ shot or not. It’s everything you’ve been taught not to do.”
Thomas Brodie-Sangster, who plays the band’s manager Malcolm McLaren with virtuoso panache, said Boyle’s approach was unlike anything he’d experienced on set before. “You felt this could go wrong, but you could rely on Danny and dive in and experiment – very Sex Pistols!”
The result is a charged, deeply rooted cubist portrait of the flamboyant rise and explosion of the Sex Pistols, whose brief existence from 1975 to 1978 made punk rock a global phenomenon and whose anarchic songs (“God Save the Queen,” “Pretty Vacant”) became hymns to the malcontents.
The series, written by Craig Pearce, is based on the memoir “Tales of a Lonely Boy” by Steve Jones, the band’s guitarist. But Boyle said that while Jones’ story was “a wonderful way to get in,” he and Pearce had tried to paint a composite picture of the entire group and the ’70s world from which it emerged. (The band originally consisted of Jones, vocalist John Lydon, known as Johnny Rotten, drummer Paul Cook, and Glen Matlock on bass, replaced in 1977 by Sid Vicious.)
The first episode opens with a montage of archive footage: the Queen waves politely to the crowd; a scene from the slapstick movies “Carry On”; David Bowie performance; striking workers and garbage on the street. When we meet Steve (Toby Wallace), he is stealing sound equipment from a Bowie performance. (The singer’s lipstick is still on the microphone.)
Steve and his bandmates are angry, bored and “trying to scrape together enough for another pint,” he tells them as they discuss what their group should wear. “So no suits?” asks the hapless Wally, who is soon thrown out of the band.
“It’s hard to overstate what class-ridden and dying British society was like for these guys,” said Pearce, who met Jones, Cook and other figures close to the band before doing most of the script in his native Australia. wrote during the early months of the pandemic.
“The promise of the Swinging Sixties did not materialize; rock and roll freedom didn’t exist for most kids,” Pearce said. “There was a feeling that if you were born in a certain class, you couldn’t escape. You had to accept what was handed to you.”
Then, he said, came “this group of kids who said, you’re sleepwalking through life.”
Boyle, he added, was always his “dream director” for the series. “We couldn’t believe it when he immediately said he wanted to do it.”
As it turned out, Boyle couldn’t quite believe it either. “I’m very music driven, but I never thought I’d do the Pistols,” he said. “I had followed John Lydon’s career closely and the animosity he felt towards the others was no secret.” But after reading Pearce’s script, Boyle immediately said yes.
“Which was ridiculous,” he said with a laugh, “since I didn’t even know if we’d have the music, the most important thing.”
Lydon opposed the use of the Sex Pistols’ music as well as the series itself, but ultimately lost his lawsuit when a judge ruled that the terms of a band deal gave Cook and Jones a majority vote. Boyle said he tried to contact Lydon during the dispute. He added that he hoped the series would “reveal the genius and humility” in the frontman.
Boyle said that while he read and researched extensively and spoke to everyone he could find involved with the band, he ended up relying on his intuition in formulating an approach to the series.
“I grew up in a similar working-class environment to Steve and these guys,” he said. “We are exactly the same age and I am a music obsession. I had to explain to the actors what the 1970s were like; they just don’t realize how little stimulation there was, how you waited all week for the New Musical Express lifeline to show up on a Thursday!”
Before filming began, the actors who played the band members spent two months in “band camp,” with a daily routine of music lessons, vocal coaching, and movement exercises. Sometimes Boyle talked to them about the 1970s and showed them images. After that, under the direction of Karl Hyde and Rick Smith of British electronic music group Underworld, they would play together for hours.
Boyle said he’d mostly avoided casting trained musicians. “I didn’t want anyone to be locked into an expertise,” he said, adding that Jacob Slater, who plays Cook, was an excellent guitarist, but had to learn the drumming.
He also decided not to do any post-production on the music. “Like the Pistols, we just had to get up and, as imperfect as we were, go for it,” said Sydney Chandler, who plays American singer Chrissie Hynde. Chandler’s character is one of several memorable women in the series, alongside designer Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley), Nancy Spungen (Emma Appleton) and punk icon Jordan (Maisie Williams).
As for the band members, “we didn’t want to be tributes or caricatures,” said Anson Boon, who plays Lydon and, like his character, had never sung before. “The Pistols produced a raw, angry wall of sound and we wanted to capture that essence without impressing.”
Playing a character who is also a real person was intimidating but fascinating, said Wallace, who spent time with Jones before filming began. “We talked a lot about his family, then he gave me the first guitar lesson I really had.”
The series depicts Steve’s unhappy childhood, which Wallace says is central to Jones’ “anger and frustration,” he said, and led him to create “a band that represents the unrepresented.
Working on the series, Boyle said, had made him aware of the importance of the Pistols beyond music. “It was a bunch of working-class workers who broke the order of things, more so than the Beatles,” he said. “It was especially resonating in the UK where the way you should behave was so ingrained.”
The Pistols, he added, gave their fans permission to do as they pleased, to waste their time however they pleased, to shape their own lives in unique ways.
“They gave a sense of purpose to aimlessness,” he said.