Is Pistol Based on a True Story?

Image Credit: Miya Mizuno/FX

‘Pistol’ follows the story of a 70s punk rock band that emerges from the British working class and sparks a global punk rock movement. The narrative revolves around singer and guitarist Steve Jones, who comes from a troublesome home and somehow, chaotically, ends up founding the Sex Pistols. There are some truly colorful characters that precipitate the formation of the explosive anti-establishment band and the FX miniseries gives them the fitting, historically turbulent backdrop that they deserve. So just how much of what we see in ‘Pistol’ actually happened? Let’s find out.

Is Pistol a True Story?

Yes, ‘Pistol’ is based on a true story. The six-part miniseries is based on the memoir, ‘Tales of a Lonely Boy,’ by the Sex Pistols guitarist and founder, Steve Jones. The narrative uses the book as a launching point and the show’s writer Craig Pearce also drew from his meetings with Jones, drummer Paul Cook and other individuals who were close to the band. Danny Boyle stepped in to direct the project and also did some extensive reading and research. However, the director also clarified that he approached the story intuitively.

Image Credit: Miya Mizuno/FX

In an interview quoted in the New York Times, Boyle said “I grew up in a similar working-class environment to Steve and these guys. We are exactly the same age and I am a music obsessive. I had to explain to the actors what the 1970s were like.” Boyle also attempted to imbibe the band’s essence into the filming process, revealing: “I tried to make the series in a way that was chaotic and true to the Pistols’ manifesto. We would just run whole scenes, whole performances, without knowing if we had captured the ‘right’ shot or not. It’s everything you’ve been taught not to do.”

Sex Pistols was formed in London in 1975 and had a brief existence during which time their groundbreaking approach to music revolutionized the punk music scene. In just about two and a half years (the band ended in 1978) the Sex Pistols inspired a number of musicians and bands and firmly etched themselves in musical history. Their anti-establishment track ‘God Save the Queen’ was banned by most major radio stations when it came out and was actually one of the most censored pieces of music in British history.

Image Credit: The Grundy Show

The series remains broadly accurate when it comes to the individuals involved with the band. Apart from its members, the characters of eclectic designer Vivienne Westwood, Nancy Spungen, Jordan, and many others are based on real people. The smooth-talking band manager Malcolm McLaren is also based on an actual Sex Pistols band manager who heavily influenced them. An incident from episode 1 where Malcolm rescues Jones from getting arrested actually occurred.

The making of the show itself involved some friction. The band’s frontman, John Lydon, better known as Johnny Rotten, went to court because he was opposed to the series. He eventually lost the case when the judge ruled that Paul Cook and Steve Jones together formed a majority vote for the band. In a note on his website, Lydon later noted that the band had a history of unanimous decisions, and allowing a judge to now order a majority vote was troubling for the band’s legacy.

Preparations for the show also included the actors essaying the band members spending two months in a “band camp.” To channel the band’s raw musical energy, Boyle avoided casting established musicians and instead had Jacob Slater, who is a good guitarist, essay the role of drummer Paul Cook. Slater then had to learn the drums. Interestingly, in an attempt to imbibe more of the Sex Pistols’ mojo into the story, there was no post-production work done on the music in the show.

Thus, the narrative, despite being based on real historical events and individuals, focuses more on embodying the essence of the Sex Pistols and the broad circumstances and cultural influences that precipitated the band’s formation.

Parts of the story are embellished and even Jones acknowledges the dramatic license taken by the show when compared to his memoir. However, the Sex Pistols founder also said that he thinks the show’s writing makes the story interesting. Notably, Jones’ memoir also delves into his time after the band’s breakup which isn’t covered in the show. Despite its slight bending of how things went down in real life, ‘Pistol’ makes an admirable attempt at balancing a biographical story with the energy of the legendary and chaotic punk rock band.

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