Toby Wallace

Pistol

03/06/22

Disney +

Looking back, it’s hard to fully appreciate the full cataclysm delivered to the United Kingdom by the arrival of The Sex Pistols in 1975. Here were four working class lads who could barely play their instruments and who seemed more interested in causing controversy than producing hit records. They did manage the latter, even if the radio initially refused to play them. Now, with the Jubilee in full swing, it’s a really interesting time for this six part series to land – and, if the House of Mouse seems an unlikely home for it, Danny Boyle as director makes perfect sense.

Working alongside regular collaborator, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantel, Boyle makes this much more than a standard rock biopic. The extended running time offers him the opportunity to explore a more diverse landscape. Co-written by guitarist Steve Jones (played here by Toby Wallace), and based on his auto-biography, this shows how the Pistols were a construct, created in the fevered brain of agent provocateur Malcolm McLaren (a wonderfully smarmy performance by Thomas Brodie-Sangster). His callous machinations are clearly displayed, as he edges out original bassist Glen Matlock (Christian Lees) – who he considers too straight and too musically accomplished – in favour of Sid Vicious (Louis Partridge), who can’t play a note but looks perfect.

Dod Mantel’s restless cameras capture everyone else in the vicinity. They include Chrissie Hynde (Sydney Chandler), who comes within a hair’s breadth of fronting the band; Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley), who creates the Pistols’ iconic look; and Jordan (Maisie Williams), who blazes a trail for women’s rights in her own fearless way. (Sadly, the real Jordan died only weeks before this series was released.)

Boyle liberally peppers the proceedings with contemporary newsreel footage, tabloid headlines and clips of established musicians touting their pompous productions: an extract from Rick Wakeman’s ‘King Arthur & The Knight’s of the Round Table – on Ice’ really ought to be a spoof, but sadly isn’t.

There are uncannily realistic recreations of true events, including the Pistols’ explosive appearance on the Bill Grundy TV show, their ill-fated tour around the north of England and their even more disastrous attempt to play a series of gigs in America. There’s an inevitable dip in episode seven as the heartbreaking relationship between Vicious and Nancy Spungen (Emma Appleton) reaches its inevitable conclusion, but Boyle could hardly have left it out – and, happily, the lost momentum is soon recovered.

It’s interesting to note that the actors perform their own music and vocals, so much respect is due to Anson Boon, who has the difficult task of portraying John Lydon and actually making us care about him. His performance is a particular triumph.

Eagle-eyed viewers may spot the fact that Boyle occasionally slips performance footage of the real band into the mix and it’s entirely to his credit that those moments are genuinely hard to spot. Poor advance reviews mean that I don’t expect to like it as much as I do – indeed, I find it so utterly compulsive, I watch all six episodes in two hugely enjoyable binges.

Never mind the bad buzz – this really is the bollocks!

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Babyteeth

02/09/20

Milla (Eliza Scanlen) is sixteen years old and going through a rough time. Already alienated from her schoolmates, struggling to co-exist with her concert-pianist mother, Anna (Essie Davis) and her psychiatrist father, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), she’s also trying to keep things together as a terminal illness exerts an increasingly powerful grip upon her.

So when she falls head-over-heels for local tearaway, Moses (Toby Wallace), a free-living, drug-abusing twenty-something, her parents are far from delighted at his unexpected appearance in their suburban home – particularly when his urgent need for drug money prompts him to try and rob the place. But Moses is Milla’s first romantic crush and he’s almost certain to be her last… so Anna and Henry realise they are going to have to let her take the lead on this.

Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Babyteeth is its steadfast refusal to allow any of the usual ‘brave victim’ clich├ęs to step into the mix. Indeed, for quite some time, Milla’s cancer is barely mentioned, so when it finally does step into the frame, it delivers something of a gut punch.

Scanlen, last seen as the least interesting character in Little Women, is a revelation here, quietly dominating the screen with her sparky presence. Wallace too does a fabulous job of making the initially deeply unlikable Moses into a fully formed character, redeemed both by Milla’s love for him and by her parents’ touching decision to allow him into the family fold. This could have been extremely mawkish, but is so adeptly handled that it really isn’t. Davis and Mendelsohn too submit nuanced performances that make them so much more than just supporting players. We share their anxieties, their frustrations and their unswerving devotion to the daughter they love.

Babyteeth marks the assured directorial debut of actor Shannon Murphy, and she’s aided and abetted by Rita Kalnejais’s inventive screenplay, the story punctuated by a series of quirky chapter headings, giving this the feel of a superior teen novel.

The only tragedy is one of timing. There are only a handful of people at the afternoon screening we attend and that’s a shame. In safer times, I have no doubt, this would be pulling in decent crowds and deservedly so. It’s an affecting story – and expertly told.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney