By Jeremy Carr.
Sid & Nancy, Alex Cox’s 1986 biopic about raucous Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) and his equally rowdy girlfriend Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb), begins in the aftermath of days, weeks, months, and years spent under a range of influences. Pasty white and dazed, Sid sits limply on a hotel bed. The room is a wreck and the sheets are stained with blood. His hands are likewise reddened. Nancy’s inert body lies crippled on the floor. On the soundtrack, a police call references the obvious domestic violence. How these two got to this point isn’t always a pretty picture. It’s chaotic and ugly, though rather like a car accident, there is something instinctively intriguing about the caustic crash of these tempestuous figures. That’s perhaps the most fascinating thing about Sid & Nancy, how Cox, cast, and crew take this romantically destructive duo and turn their drug-addled descent into an unexpectedly magnetic love story.
Flashing back to about a year prior, Sid (real name John Simon Ritchie) is joined by the Sex Pistols’ lead singer, Johnny Rotten, played by Andrew Schofield. Together, and in their general clique, they are loud and crass, rebuking authority and decorum with the same sort violent vigor that their music so fervently transmits. In this wild punk scene, they are all about bad attitudes and bad behavior; they revel in bodily functions and think nothing of whacking a disparaging journalist with a guitar. Adding fuel to the fire, and unneeded stimulus to an already amplified insanity, Nancy has been living a high-strung, strung-out existence of her own. She and Sid instantly connect. It’s difficult to say what type of crazed chemistry melds these two together, but it’s a potent concoction all the same. After this, about 50 minutes into Sid & Nancy, Cox includes a brief medley of the Sex Pistols’ United States tour, and the prompt dissolution of the group shortly thereafter, in early 1978. Episodic vignettes then trace Sid’s solo stint (his video rendition of the Sinatra standard “My Way” is a highlight), and through that montage of musical mayhem, Nancy, in her own earnest way, attempts to keep Sid’s career on track. Before long, though, he is debilitatingly intoxicated, playing to practically empty houses and slurring the words to lyrics he had to write down in the first place.
This is when Sid & Nancy hits its depressive, disturbing stride. Hovering between dependency and possessiveness, Nancy clings to Sid as the two spiral out of control. “At least you used to be something!” she rages in a vain attempt to establish some degree of self-worth, aside from being merely the mate of Sid Vicious. Though his level of commitment is undeniably less critical than hers, what follows is a harrowing escalation of drug abuse, psychological devastation, and gradual, willful exile. When Sid and Nancy disembarked a boat earlier in the film, Cox centered the two in a tight dolly shot as they remained in constant focus while the background – the people, buildings, cars, streets – moved further and further away. Similarly, a famous image from the film (the one usually captured for posters and home video box art) shows the couple standing by a dumpster kissing, as garbage falls around them. It’s an emblematic image for a reason, and that united-yet-remote suggestion strengthens as the film continues, especially in the latter portions of the picture, when the saga of Sid and Nancy becomes a twisted illustration of sympathetic intimacy.
Sid and Nancy get to where they cannot seem to function in everyday situations; a Spungen family dinner shows this, when Sid sits listless and shirtless at the table and the two openly tout their methadone clinic plans. As their social circle becomes increasingly void of positive influence, their insular livelihood tightens and strains. Visually, the outside world detaches from the frame, leaving the two of them in painful, combustible proximity. Eventually, they are holed up in the Chelsea Hotel, where the film began. They lie in bed surrounded by a sea of trash and discarded remnants of a futile, fading life. By this point, though the imagery grows more repugnant and the tone more severe, the film assumes a surprisingly reflexive stance, like a helpless lament, bearing witness to the tortures of withdrawal, the rawness, the oblivious misery and the miserable obliviousness (their room catches fire and neither seems to care). Yet there is an enduring love in spite of it all. Seeing Sid struggle to raise his arm around Nancy, which he does manage to do, is absolutely devastating in its unspoken sincerity. Near the beginning of the film, after Sid tries heroin (likely for the first time, though he says otherwise), Cox cuts to him retching in the toilet as Nancy comforts by his side. There is then another cut to Sid and Nancy in bed having sex, presumably just minutes later. In a way, the absurdity of that sequence (to say nothing of its crudity) symbolizes the entire movie. That Cox and cast are able to successfully balance this oftentimes unpleasant juxtaposition of visceral textures and emotions, to sustain it for an entire film, and to do so in a way that remains absorbing, is truly impressive.
Webb, whose previous acting experience consisted of parts on Remington Steele (1983) and Mary (1986), gives a powerful, guttural performance, and although her turn as Nancy is less physical than Oldman’s interpretation of Sid, she is no less animated. Even when she is simply speaking, she does so with a shrill, brazen harshness. The pain in her cracking proclamations and piercing outcries testify to a deep, underlying anxiety. Curiously, Courtney Love auditioned for the role of Nancy, declaring “I am Nancy Spungen,” a statement that would have notorious reverberations following the death of Love’s boyfriend, the troubled rocker Kurt Cobain. Cox gave her a minor role and cast Love in his 1987 film, Straight to Hell, the title of which came from a song by the more poppy punk band The Clash. And, as it so happened, one of that band’s lead singers, Joe Strummer, wrote the title track for Sid & Nancy, “Love Kills,” which was also the original title of the film before a legal challenge forced the change.
While his chameleonesque career to come would far exceed Webb’s, Oldman’s early ‘80s output also revolved around conventional television programming, and so what one sees here must surely have been a revelation. When Sid is still in his prime, Oldman is all angles and energy, skin and bones twisting and gyrating in sharp movements. By film’s end, however, he is slouched and bent, his body a deficient model of his internal deterioration. Like the film itself, Oldman also plays Sid with a curious mixture of apparent incongruities, of hard edges and pliable looseness. If Nancy is all noise and exclamation, he is all action and movement. Oldman turns in a corresponding, barely contained carnal showcase. He proceeds with heedless abandon, carving Nancy’s name in his chest with a razor blade, spitting into a crowd, and stating, with brutal directness, his intention of going out in a “blaze of glory” (which Vicious didn’t, dying from an overdose at the age of 21). Throughout the film, Sid is nothing if not honest; when Nancy complains her mother won’t send them money because she thinks they would just spend it on drugs, he casually agrees, “We would.”
The impetus for Sid & Nancy came in 1980, when Cox wrote a fictional story inspired by Vicious and Spungen. But other projects, like his 1984 cult classic Repo Man, took him in other directions. A few years down the road, Cox and co-writer Abbe Wool did craft the screenplay for the film as it is. Bringing on cinematographer Roger Deakins, who had mostly worked on documentaries and shorts, the team shapes a portrait that matches the frenetic tone and madness of the narrative, but does so within a carefully controlled form. Actually, Cox and Deakins show almost humorous restraint when adopting a more distanced, impartial viewpoint, holding steady as Oldman and Webb continue on so dramatically and dynamically. These wider shots, gradually waning as the film goes on, soak in the early surroundings, the wardrobe and the club settings, the details so pervasive and prominent that Sid and Nancy are like literally walking, talking products of their environment.
In the course of Sid & Nancy’s 114-minute duration, comparatively little time is spent on a depiction of the Sex Pistols as punk icons. That’s understandable, though, given the film is clearly more concerned with the peculiar relationship between this rollicking couple. There is some indication of the band’s fame (or infamy), and the perks that went along with their notoriety are evident, but there is no real appreciation of the group’s global impact and importance. Perhaps recognizing this, the Criterion Collection loaded their recent release of the film with a catalog of bonus features, most of which focus on the real-life musicians. Aside from a documentary on the making of Sid & Nancy and the two filmmaker audio commentaries, supplements include a 1976 interview with the Sex Pistols, a telephone interview with Vicious, and interviews with Vicious and Spungen from a 1980 documentary. The Criterion release is therefore a valuable, two-fold document, assessing who these people were and why they’re worth a feature film.
According to Jon Savage, who writes an insightful essay about Sid & Nancy for Criterion, Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren once observed, “I don’t see Johnny Rotten on a T-shirt on the Lower East Side … I see Sid all the bloody time.” Or, as one character in the film says, “Sidney’s more than a mere bass player. He’s a fabulous disaster. He’s a symbol, a metaphor. He embodies the dementia of a nihilistic generation. He’s a fuckin’ star!” One may not get this sense by watching Sid & Nancy alone; without knowing any better, one may wonder why all the fuss. Yet if Sid & Nancy doesn’t delve fully into the cultural and musical significance of the Sex Pistols and Sid Vicious in particular, what it lacks in that historical context, it more than makes up for from an emotional perspective, as a humanizing portrait of two self-destructive people, made for each other, and their precarious connection to life and death. It’s a fair enough trade, and in the end, it may be a better movie because of it.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, Cut Print Film, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine, and Fandor.