Sid & Nancy

Studio: Criterion

Sep 08, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Sid Vicious became the face of punk , not for his talent, but for his behavior. Sadly, one of those acts included the death of the love of his life, Nancy Spungen, who died in mysterious circumstances in the Chelsea Hotel on October 12th, 1978. The couple, trapped in the hell of heroin and drug addiction, had reportedly been fighting when Vicious may or may not have stabbed her. Devastated over his loss, he too descended even further into self-destruction, dying a few weeks later, the night after his release from Rikers Island.  In 1986, Filmmaker Alex Cox ‘s second film, Sid & Nancy, helped to solidify the myth as it told their story in a quasi-romantic manner.

For sure, the story of Sid and Nancy seemed destined to be told, and whoever got the story first was going to have to face tempering the reality with the legend. Cox had been enthralled with the punk movement, and his previous film, Repo Man, had been set in the Los Angeles scene, and he felt their story fit the “live fast, die young” mythos. Upon hearing an absurd rumor that Madonna had shown interest in playing Spungen in another screenwriter’s treatment, Cox felt the time right to tell their story. Enlisting Chloe Webb as Nancy and a young actor friend named Gary Oldham, Cox found a duo that couldn’t have been better suited for their roles. Webb captures Spungen’s personality to a T—this set’s bonus features includes an interview with Sid and Nancy, and it’s downright scary just how well she channeled Nancy. (In the commentary track, Webb discusses her own drug abuse, which adds a chilling truth to just how much she became Nancy.)

Yet Sid & Nancy should be approached with an ounce of caution, as its tale often veers from fact into romantic fantasy. Of course, the lives of junkies are often absurd comedies, and throwing in the punk rock-cum-celebrity aspect of their tale only makes it even more absurd. Then again, as Cox explains, he wasn’t making a straight biographic picture, and never claimed to be historically accurate. Indeed; there’s no mention in the film of this being ‘based on a true story,’ which is probably a credit to Cox’s foresight. Not that Cox forsook the approval of the participants; he approached both John Lydon and Malcolm McLaren, both of whom begrudgingly gave them their approval. That they were upset with the final product was perhaps a blessing in disguise, as slagging it off in the press would pique people’s curiosity.

Aside from the historical inaccuracies and absurd caricatures, their beef is that it romanticized the tragedy of their self-destruction, and they’re absolutely right—Sid & Nancy does just that, and concludes with one of the cheesiest endings in film. Cox is the first to admit he hates the ending, but he didn’t want to end the story on the unflatteringly depressing ending that actually occurred on February 2nd, 1979, when Vicious dies of a heroin overdose. Yet one thing Cox does right is the handling of Nancy’s death. When you watch the scene for the first time, one thinks he’s using the theory that the two were fighting and he stabbed her out of frustration. Watch it again, though, and you’ll notice you never actually see him thrusting the knife that he’s holding when she lunges at him. Thus, in its most important scene, Cox doesn’t actually say what really happened that night—an incident that, 40 year later, still remains a mystery.

This Criterion collection set offers commentary tracks, a long-lost 30-minute making of from 1986, but the bonus features are a bit skimpy. An interview with Cox is enjoyable, as he talks about the role of punk rock subcultures in his work, and a phone interview with Roberta Bailey with Sid from 1978 is revealing, as we can hear two things often said about him: one, he was very childlike—his request for comic books to read is touching, while his observations about Lydon’s future show that he’s a bit more savvy and intelligent than his boneheaded reputation might lead one to believe. Also included are segments from two other documentaries; one features from last year’s Sad Vacation, about the last days of the couple, and another is an interview with Sid and Nancy from the punk documentary D.O.A. It would have been nice to have the whole docs as opposed to excerpts, but that’s a minor quibble, and it would have been interesting to have had Courtney Love—who made her film screen debut here as Nancy’s friend—offer her perspective on Nancy, especially considering how she would subsequently be unfairly and viciously portrayed as a modern-day Nancy.

Sid & Nancy isn’t a great film. When this reviewer saw it as a teenager, he loved it, as it was his introduction to the Sex Pistols. Watching it thirty years later—and with a deeper knowledge of the history of the band and the couple—it’s easy to laugh at the cheesy absurdity of it all, but I’d be the last one to say that it’s not an enjoyable film in its own right.


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