Alex Cox’s Sid & Nancy, a heartfelt take on the true-life relationship between Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen—a love that ended when Sid stabbed Nancy to death in the Chelsea Hotel, then died of a drug overdose while awaiting trial—could easily have been just another rock biopic. Instead, through the use of fantasy-tinged reenactments (favoring the surreal in lieu of the straightforward), Cox transforms this gritty tabloid story into something deeper. It’s a perfect example of finding truth through fictionalization.
The film begins with the police interrogating a blood-covered Sid (eerily embodied by Gary Oldman) in his hotel room. “Who called 911? Did you call 911?” an officer asks to no response. He wants to know who the girl was, where he met her. “I met her at Linda’s,” Sid finally acknowledges after shakily taking a toke from a cigarette. Thus begins a flashback to better days, when lead singer Johnny Rotten and Sid were just a couple of boys causing chaos in 70s Britain, knocking in the front window of a Rolls, slurping baked beans at dominatrix Linda’s flat, throwing darts at drummer Paul in the local pub. Cox shoots in bright daylight (this is England?), emphasizing the purity of the blokes, the sweet innocence beneath the bravado nihilism. These aren’t ruthless delinquents out to hurt or even to impress. They’re just fuckin’ bored (a running theme in the dialogue, with punks constantly lamenting ennui, the core of teenage rebellion).
Things don’t go well at that first meeting when groupie Nancy (played by Chloe Webb, equal to Oldman in chameleon ability) announces she has “all” of the Sex Pistols albums back in New York before calling Sid by Johnny’s name. It’s only later when they end up two bodies on the sardine-packed floor of a flat that the dysfunctional relationship begins. Nancy literally wedges herself between Sid and Johnny, marking a turning point in the boys’ friendship. A girl has come between them. It’s time to grow up.
Unfortunately, growing up entails shooting up with junkie Nancy, who guides the naïve Sid. When he asks her to score him some smack and she leaves with his money, he actually thinks she’s going to come back. Cox frames Sid waiting in the doorway of the pub, huddled in the nighttime rain, stubbornly refusing to come inside. Instantly there’s a quick flash to sunny daytime, the bright orange of pal Wally’s hair and jacket contrasting with Sid’s jet black spikes and leather, followed by the many colors of the fruits and vegetables of the outdoor market they navigate, which borders on the surreal. Everyday events are no longer normal. A group of school kids run amuck, bashing parked cars with bats. Over-the-top perhaps, but then so were the 70s.
And this is another reason Sid & Nancy succeeds: Cox gives his story a larger context than two lovebirds in a punk-scene cocoon. Whether it’s the stunning long shots of London’s seedy streets or the highly stylized boat sequence in which the Sex Pistols’ concert on the Thames is ended by police billy clubs, the film never loses hold of the idea that the 70s were a time of larger economic and social turmoil. The Sex Pistols were a reaction to a hostile environment, not the cause of it, and they did not operate in a bubble. (Cox hints at the scene’s larger context by showing X-ray Spex opening for the Pistols with “Oh, Bondage, Up Yours!” before Sid and Johnny take the stage.) Only love enables Sid and Nancy to drift untouched through the police riot, their escape accompanied by acoustic music instead of screams.
Sid & Nancy is really a coming-of-age (first) love story at heart. The major characters all play at being something they’re not. Nancy name-drops, brags she’s “friends with Debbie Harry,” while Sid “plays” at being a junkie. Wally even plays with toy cars while Sid and Nancy have drugged-out sex nearby. They’re all children masquerading as grown-ups. Sid and Nancy fire toy guns at Johnny while dashing through the street, and fight while Sid vacuums his mum’s flat and Nancy jumps up and down on the bed (this ridiculous scene culminates in Sid chasing Nancy down the street in his leather jacket and jock strap until Nancy stops to strip off the hippie costume she’s tried on. Facing a store window, she exclaims, “I look like fucking Stevie Nicks!” Of course, this all occurs after Sid finds his lost G.I. Joe doll and Nancy laments, “I’ll never look like Barbie. Barbie doesn’t have bruises.”) Within the humor shines pathos born of knowing you’ll never live up to society’s expectations.
Cox is masterful at staging hilarious scenes that end with unexpected poignancy. Nancy calls her parents in the middle of the night to tell them she and Sid got married, and if they rush down to American Express “like, right now” they could send them a couple hundred bucks as a wedding gift. Then, when she doesn’t get what she wants, she smashes the window of the phone booth like an impulsive kid. It’s a scene at once silly and primal, the desperation of a junkie felt as much as seen. No matter how outlandish the set-ups—from the sleazy drug dealing Rock Head on his exercise bike as Sid and Nancy make out in the background to Johnny’s deadpan “You know you’ve got a man hanging from your ceiling?” at Linda’s dungeon/pad—the film is firmly grounded in a reality familiar to those living in hyperreality. When Sid performs “My Way” on an elaborate soundstage before an opera audience, then pulls a gun on them, it’s no more stylized than his actual life. (Life itself is a stage!) Cox jam-packs his film with off-kilter visuals that feel organic, not quirky or forced. In terms of sensibility he’s a lot like Terry Gilliam, who likewise chooses to push reality up a notch as a means of exposing what lies just beneath the surface. (When Sid pukes on a schmoozer who approaches him at a table in Paris, the guy’s girlfriend is wearing headgear attached to braces, a contraption recalling the hero’s face-lift-obsessed mother in Gilliam’s Brazil.)
Because Cox creates his own living, breathing world we’re not so concerned with historical accuracy, with “the facts.” So what if the guy playing Johnny Rotten doesn’t look much like the real John Lydon? His constant correcting of Sid’s singing, “We don’t fucking care!” with “No ’fucking’—just ’we don’t care’!” tells us more about the character than the right shade of Rotten red. The shot of Sid and Nancy sleeping, their heads of jet black and bottle blonde cuddled together like furry animals, and the scene in which Nancy, dressed in fetish gear, answers Linda’s phone and falls to her knees when she hears Sid’s voice calling from America, visualize their love better than any “true events” ever could. “You’re just gonna have to have sex with somebody else!” an irritated Nancy finally exclaims, hanging up as Linda calls for her—this is followed by a quick cut to a long shot of Sid at a phone booth, shit-kicker cowboys in the foreground. Their relationship goes from being so near to so desperately far away.
Cox’s ability to capture the subtleties of the relationship through lush cinematography (courtesy of Roger Deakins) and sharp editing is what humanizes Sid & Nancy, what makes the film a universal tale. Cox wastes no time—even when Sid accidentally walks through a plate-glass door and goes down in slo-mo, we don’t hear glass and people shrieking but disembodied voices arguing. The next scene reveals it’s the beginning of the end, the loud break-up of the band around a comatose Sid’s hospital bed. By the time we see Sid sitting up, raptly watching a monster movie as a Christmas-decorated shopping cart rolls into the room, we know Nancy is going to be standing in that doorway. Sappy and sentimental? Sure. Isn’t that what love is?
But the most touching scene is one that occurs halfway through, a wordless vision that signals the inevitable downfall. In slow motion under gorgeous, bluish lighting with music both powerful and lulling, the two junkie lovebirds make out against a dumpster as trash rains down from the unforgiving sky. This is the essence of Cox’s punk masterpiece, a subliminal foreshadowing of their deaths. From here Sid & Nancy turns unbearably heartbreaking. “All my friends are dead,” Nancy states as if she’s awakened to a revelation. “I hate this fucking life.” Sid tries to calm her, tells her things will get better when they get to America. “We’re in America!” she yells and the horror is visceral. Her words cut to the bone. There is simply no way out. Sid goes to the balcony, the Hotel Chelsea sign looming in the background. The sounds of NYC rise from below, overwhelm like life itself.
And yet the innocent humor persists. Nancy takes Sid to meet her family. Over dinner her grandpa asks about Sid’s “intentions” with his granddaughter. “Well, first we’ll go down to the methadone clinic,” Sid answers sincerely before the family retires to the rec room where the clueless couple entertain with Pistols tunes on an acoustic guitar. When they’re finally told they can’t stay, are better off at a hotel, Nancy’s face registers a crushing knowingness. “Why’d they throw us out?” Sid wonders later. “Because they know me,” Nancy quietly replies. Even when Sid goes back on their deal to not do any drugs until after his upcoming gigs, Nancy, through her howls of disappointment and seething anger, screams, “And you didn’t even save me any!” It’s this constant interweaving of hilarity and bleakness that keeps us off balance, makes us see this junkie tale through fresh and sober eyes.
This is also a hallmark of the film’s director. Both the guy dispensing the drugs at the methadone clinic who suddenly starts ranting about how the government uses heroin as a form of control or the creepy bellhop who begs for money after Sid and Nancy are moved to a new room could easily have slipped in from Cox’s Repo Man. Cox likes to disarm us with weirdness in the same way David Lynch does, using it as a tool to alter our expectations of what is or what should be. The hotel room at the Chelsea where the pair hole up is like a tomb, shot in that same deathly bluish light. When Sid takes the stage in a near-empty bar to sing Iggy’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog” the scene is inter-cut with dollar bills floating in the air. When he runs into a group of kids bullying another he tells them to stop. “Who do you think you are?” one little guy challenges. “Sid Vicious,” he answers coolly. The children speed off in fast motion. Cox is forever altering our perception of the familiar.
To a longing soundtrack laced with haunting melodies by Joe Strummer and The Pogues, Cox forces us to witness something incredible—souls deteriorating, rotting away before bodies succumb. The music, melancholy guitars and drumbeats, is funereal. When a drugged-out Nancy accidentally sets fire to their room she watches mesmerized as the flames consume, sees the beauty in the disintegration. Even when the firefighters rush in to drag her out in slow motion the pained expression on Nancy’s face says it all. “At least you used to be something. I’ve never been anything,” she tells Sid when he tries to comfort her. What, in fact, were those firefighters saving her from?
And there’s the junkie rub. By the time the infamous murder scene occurs, Sid and Nancy are no longer living human beings. They’re zombies merely existing until the next fix. When Sid finally lunges at Nancy with the knife she herself bought, neither one is mentally present. What is reality anyway? I can’t think of another movie where a murder occurs without either party fully comprehending the finality of the event, Nancy splayed out on the bathroom’s white tiles, blood everywhere, light streaming out and into the darkened bedroom where Sid remains. Nancy has found the light in death, Sid only blackness in life. After his arrest we see Sid through the bars in the jail, lying on the floor convulsing. The Sex Pistols may have sung about “No Future,” but Sid was the only member who lived it. “Sidney is more than just a bass player—he’s a fabulous disaster!” Malcolm McLaren declares. That he was.
The Criterion Collection edition of Sid & Nancy is chock full of goodies, including commentary not just by co-screenwriter Abbe Wool and stars Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb, but also by those who were there during punk’s heyday. Cultural historian Greil Marcus, who wrote two books about the Pistols, weighs in, as do musician Eliot Kidd and filmmakers Julien Temple and Lech Kowalski (whose doc D.O.A. is excerpted in the extras as well). This is a perfect melding of those who fictionalized Sid and Nancy with those who knew them, the stories oftentimes contradicting one another (Julien Temple wasn’t too happy about John Lydon being portrayed as a clown rather than the wit he is), but always bringing us to a deeper contextual understanding of the punk scene.
“England’s Glory” is a “making of” doc by Martin Turner, shot at a cost of $500. Perhaps the most surprising element of this behind-the-scenes peek is how happy and relaxed Alex Cox’s set is, more like a jam session than a costly movie. It’s a delight to behold the quiet and sweet Gary Oldman looking like a young Johnny Depp when out of his Sid Vicious character, or Alex Cox with his own spiked hair goofing off with the punk extras. Even the calliope music that substitutes for Pistols songs in four scenes (due to problems with music rights clearances) adds to the carnival atmosphere.
“D.O.A.: A Right of Passage” features interviews with the real Sid and Nancy, taken from D.O.A., Kowalski’s documentary on the Sex Pistols’ American tour. “They were incredibly pathetic and I felt like I was taking advantage of them just by being there,” Kowalski is quoted as saying. Listening to Nancy berate a nodding-off Sid in her New York whine you realize just how inseparably dysfunctional the two really were. She yells at him to try to stay awake for the interview, to stop dropping lit cigarettes on her, and she also notes that he’s constantly spilling coffee and orange juice on her—Sid is always the helpless, careless kid who wouldn’t be able to function without Nancy (she actually claims Sid would have died around fifteen deaths already if not for her!) .
“The Filth and the Fury!” is the actual December 1976 episode of Thames Television’s “Today” show with Bill Grundy, which featured the Sex Pistols (after Queen canceled). Though Sid and Nancy aren’t on it (original bassist Glen Matlock hadn’t yet had his feud with Johnny Rotten) Siouxsie Sioux is, hilariously flirting with old geezer Grundy. “Anarchy in the U.K.” is overdubbed (clearance issues again!), but it’s well worth viewing this historical moment when the Pistols went from local rebellious lads to a national embarrassment.
The “Phone interview with Sid Vicious” on July 20, 1978 occurred after Sid took a flight to London via NYC (three days after an overdose following the Pistols’ final San Francisco concert), fell into a drug-induced coma during the trip, and was promptly taken to Jamaica Hospital in Queens. Photographer Roberta Bayley, who shot the covers for the Ramones’ first album and Richard Hell and the Voidoids’ debut, conducted the “interview,” which is really a painful conversation between a caring friend and a lonely incoherent junkie who can’t get anyone to visit him in his darkest hour due to a blizzard. Listening to Sid gush about his big pile of Marvel comics is particularly heartbreaking.