Never has a rock n’ roll figure’s mythology been so out of proportion to his musical achievements as in the strange case of Sid Vicious, the volatile, charismatic Sex Pistols bassist who died of a heroin overdose in early 1979. Considered borderline incompetent on his chosen instrument, Vicious barely played on the Pistols’s classic record Never Mind the Bollocks, his musical legacy consisting of little more than a lead vocal on a supercharged version of “My Way.” But for many, he embodies the extreme behaviors and anything-goes attitude of the late-’70s transatlantic punk scene, a street kid with spiky hair and an endless appetite for drugs.
Vicious’s most infamous act in a short career full of them was the alleged murder of girlfriend Nancy Spungen on October 12, 1978 at New York’s Chelsea Hotel, a crime that was never properly investigated and for which many believe Sid was innocent. Four months later, the point was moot: Vicious was dead and the case was officially closed. In his film Who Killed Nancy (a cinematic companion to his book on the same subject), director Alan G. Parker doesn’t so much reopen the case as make an argument that doing so would be likely to acquit the former Sex Pistol. Drawing on the testimony of friends and acquaintances who were in Vicious’s apartment that night (and none of whom were ever interviewed by a police department quick to hang the blame on the most obvious suspect), the film argues that the heavily barbiturated bassist, who was passed out in a near coma during the night in question, could not have woken up and stabbed Spungen given his drug-induced condition. More intriguingly, several subjects speak of a mysterious hanger-on, in attendance in the apartment that night but long since disappeared, who they believe to be the real killer.
But for all the film’s speculation on the circumstances of Spungen’s death, the bulk of the project is given to a compelling oral history of the ’70s New York punk scene, told by the musicians, producers, and scenesters that were there. These reminiscences have a real insider’s feel—and imply a certain amount of background knowledge on the viewer’s part—that are likely to prove more than a little fascinating to punk nostalgics. Semi-obscure figures like Keith Levene and Viv Albertine appear on camera, one of Sid’s friends describes the Chelsea Hotel as “a fancy lowlife nightmare with a hefty history,” and everyone pretty much agrees that Spungen was a manipulative bitch. We learn that Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers were largely responsible for introducing heroin to the scene and that around 1978, given the increasingly dangerous atmosphere of downtown Manhattan, punks began carrying knives for protection.
But mostly people are there to talk about Sid, a man who they characterize as extremely volatile (Albertine: “He took everything to the nth degree”), but deceptively smart and who at heart just wanted to be loved. That may be, but there’s enough evidence—a harrowing tale from an acquaintance describing his hanging of a cat, some archival footage in which he spouts nonsense about “existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre”—to offer some challenge to the more generous claims made on his behalf. Perhaps the real mystery the film raises is not the titular question, but the more abstract conundrum of why a talentless, borderline insane individual has become the face of a movement that produced so much music of lasting value.
As valuable as Parker’s film may be as a record of a specific time and place, it’s missing the one key element that more than any other defines the scene it documents: the very music that makes us care about the scene in the first place. It’s most likely a case of rights issues, but the archival footage is almost completely devoid of live performance, while not a single Sex Pistols song is heard on the soundtrack. Instead, we’re treated to the dreary recent work of the once great Buzzcocks as well as the solo output of that group’s backup lead singer, Steve Diggle, which together comprise at least two-thirds of the film’s music. Often these tunes are employed in tandem with some silly bits of visual fluffery—an amateurish collage of Sid in black and white shooting up while other Sids cavort in color in the background, a handful of animé-ish cartoon reenactments—fit complements to Diggle’s music in their lack of palatability, and definitive proof that while Parker may be a sure hand at gathering material, he’s pretty much clueless when it comes to shaping his findings into an aesthetically viable product.