To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling: Punk is punk, and junk is junk, and never the twain shall meet. That’s the object lesson in Sid & Nancy. When it came time for Alex Cox to follow up his punk-fueled cult classic Repo Man, he took the natural next step with Sid & Nancy, a straight-up punk biopic that centers on Sid Vicious’s (Gary Oldman) downward spiral of a relationship with girlfriend Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb), a whiny, wheedling annoyance (dubbed “Nauseating Nancy” by friends and foes alike) who was allegedly stabbed to death by Sid less than a year before he died from an overdose at the ripe old age of 21. No future, or so the lyric goes. Sid lived it and died it, while Johnny Rotten got wholesome, and now pitches Country Life butter on British television.
Nowadays getting inked is a rite of passage every aspiring sorority girl undergoes. Tribal facial tattoos and earlobe stretching are unexceptional sights. In other words, being an outsider seems to be in again. Admittedly, parsing a signifying system comprised of hairstyles and torn clothing that assures a cohesive social identity for a bunch of purported anarchists and individualists can get a little tricky. Of course, in the punk ethos, image and idea have always gone hand-in-leather glove. Watching the ease with which the ‘60s counterculture was appropriated and commodified by the mainstream, punk guru Malcolm McLaren must have wondered, “Why wait? Let’s prefab the next revolution ourselves!” Which brings us to McLaren’s own private Frankenstein monster, the Sex Pistols, and their nominal bassist Sid Vicious. (Debate still rages over the extent of his musical skills.)
By refusing to reduce itself to a rehashed Sex Pistols “greatest hits” parade, Sid & Nancy fortuitously sidesteps one of the biggest pitfalls of the musical biopic, examining events instead with an eye for telling detail and a healthy sense of absurdist humor that’s evident in even the bleakest scenes. Cox welds improvisatory looseness and a shabby-chic veracity with flights of fancy and off-the-cuff surrealism, most noticeably in a scene that reconstructs an early music video for Sid’s sloppy, profanity-riddled cover of “My Way.” Sid stumbles and slurs his way down a neon-lit staircase and through part of Sinatra’s tune, before drawing a revolver from his holster and blowing away various swells, decked out in tuxes and formal attire, who make up his audience. His final victim is Nancy, who refuses to play dead, however, and joins him on stage for a backlit kiss, as the shot ends with Griffith-style iris in.
Sid & Nancy‘s first half offers an immersive plunge into the punk lifestyle, capturing with wit and verve its anti-authoritarian sneer and DIY ethos, while the film slowly circles the drain during a dour second half given over to disillusion and dissolution. As a result, while it eludes biopic cliché, the film hits all the requisite beats now familiar in a Doomed Junkie saga, establishing a generic iconography that both Sid & Nancy and its near contemporary, Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy, did much to insinuate into the pop culture zeitgeist. Although Cox has suggested the film was meant to be an unapologetic anti-drug tract, Sid & Nancy, far from just saying no, on the contrary romanticizes its pathetic doomed couple. Witness the iconic scene where Sid and Nancy lean against a dumpster, kissing in silhouette while trash falls in slow motion around them. Sights like this suggest that Cox and company might well have cribbed a title from the writings of famed opium-eater Thomas de Quincey and called their film The Pleasures and Pains of Heroin.
Counterbalancing this doomed romanticism, apart from the couple’s slow slide into dismal squalor and chemical codependence (as if that weren’t enough), there’s a sobering scene in a methadone clinic where Sid and Nancy are taken to task by a nameless social worker (Sy Richardson) who informs them that they’re literally full of shit, wondering aloud why they aren’t peddling some variety of “healthy anarchism” instead. It’s a scene that could easily play like an Afterschool Special. Richardson’s acerbic delivery, allowing his pithy little monologue to seemingly come out of left field, puts it across with humor, which always makes a bitter pill that much easier to swallow.
Visually, the new Blu-ray transfer stands head-and-shoulders above the non-anamorphic Criterion DVD and a bit above the earlier MGM Collector's Edition disc. Nevertheless, however bright and sharp the transfer (and it is both), issues concerning detail and color saturation remain. The lossless DTS track doesn't get much use out of its peripheral channels, except during some of the noisier performance and crowd scenes, otherwise keeping the sound up front and center. Dialogue is mostly clear, and when it isn't, that has more to do with junkie mumbling in the source material than any questions of transfer.
In keeping with Fox's bargain-bin Blu-ray releases, there's neither a start-up menu nor any bookmark function. The film simply starts playing once it loads, and if you need to pause it anytime during playback, why, then, you'll have to do precisely that. On top of this structural stinginess, the rather slender contingent of extras, ported over from the Collector's Edition DVD, is a real disappointment compared to the supplement-loaded Criterion disc. There are only two 15-minute talking-head retrospective featurettes, obviously extracted from the same interview sessions, with folks who knew the titular couple, or else were involved with Alex Cox at some point in his career. Oddly, no one involved in the making of the actual film is on hand, so you're going to have to put any "insights" proffered by the participants down in the hearsay column. Another strange touch: Throughout both featurettes, photos of actors Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb are used as cutaways, instead of archival shots of the real Sid and Nancy, adding further to the intransigent mash of factual and fictional represented by Sid & Nancy.
The Blu-ray upgrade of Alex Cox's Sid & Nancy is an audiovisual improvement over earlier DVD editions, but far more effort could have been put into assembling a satisfactory assortment of extras.