Fiction based on real-life is more scrutinised nowadays, to the point where shows and movies love to emphasise their ‘Based on’ qualifications. With the new Hulu/Disney+ series Pam & Tommy, which follows the story of the infamous sex tape with Baywatch star Pamela Anderson (Lily James) and Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee (Sebastian Stan), so-called reality becomes warped by facts that are ridiculously true.
It is apparently true that Lee pointed a shotgun at his former carpenter Rand Gauthier (Seth Rogen) after firing him. It is apparently true that Gauthier, as revenge, dressed as a dog and broke into the Lees’ mansion – stealing the sex tape that would conjure a VHS/Internet storm. And it's also true that Lee has chatted with his penis which, apparently, answers back (as detailed in his 2004 memoir Tommyland).
Seth Rogen and Nick Offerman as Rand Gauthier and Uncle Miltie. Photo: WDW/Disney
Most of these corroborated facts come from a 2014 Rolling Stone article, upon which the series is based. But although that particular long-read is flavoured with strong and unforgettable details about those who stole and distributed the tape in 1995, Lee and Anderson didn’t provide any comment – and it’s the same with the series. This creates some scepticism around episode two, which examines the couple’s hazy meet-cute and hasty nuptials. Funny, too, that it’s the more exciting of the two episodes available to review.
However, if you set aside those potential punctures – exploiting a story of exploitation without explicit consent – and trust that writer Robert Siegel (The Wrestler) and director Craig Gillespie (Cruella) have ethical motivations, Pam & Tommy can be a thrilling 90s adventure.
Episode one kicks off with an inspired and potentially controversial perspective: that of Rand Gauthier. He’s fixing up the Lee household and he's being treated painfully by Tommy, who wears nothing except tattoos and a banana hammock.
Seth Rogen plays Rand with his usual everyman personality, but thankfully strips away his stoned slacker trademark. The role of Rand mixes his familiar silliness with a maturely interesting performance. But that doesn’t stop Rogen's comedic fear from gushing out: largely through his brilliant eyes, which he hilariously magnifies.
Following from Rand’s point of view also provides an amply antagonistic introduction to Tommy, an over-privileged rock star with the mind of a sex-crazed teenager. He’s played by Sebastian Stan with a detestable but occasionally seductive hedonism.
Lily James as Pamela Anderson. Photo: WDW/Disney
Pamela, however, is only glimpsed: a buxom shape with waves of peroxided hair. If you didn’t know the story of the series (which is unlikely), you wouldn’t necessarily guess that she’s the subject. Choosing to leave Pam to one side to promote the instigator of her pornographic humiliation is a risky move. But it's more than rectified in the second episode, where Pam gets to be her full, explosive self. Despite the drugs, the alcohol and the sexual montages, her relationship with Tommy is unexpectedly sweet.
Like Stan, Lily James melts into the role. Although her period-drama appearances in Downton Abbey and The Pursuit of Love are wild in their own polite ways, they're immediately detached and forgotten in the wake of this transformational portrayal. Enduring the large wigs, heavy make-up, and prosthetic breasts – all of which took four hours every day to apply during production – it’s a career-defining performance for James.
Along with Gillespie’s Scorsese-inspired melding of rocky music and flexible camera angles, those screen-breaking performances, and Siegel’s propulsive, sympathetic writing, Pam & Tommy grows into a surreal, sexy, and baffling romp through the entire sordid business. There’s a degree of guilt and wonder about what the real-life players will think, but it’s so easy to be sucked in.
Pam & Tommy is available on Disney+ from Wednesday 2 February.
|What||Pam & Tommy, Disney+, first-look review|
02 Feb 22 – 02 Feb 23, ON DISNEY PLUS / STAR
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