Sid & Nancy is 30 years old now so it’s time for that inevitable re-release on Blu-Ray. It attempts to tell the story of relationship between Sex Pistols “bassist” Sid Vicious and his junkie American girlfriend Nancy Spungen which ends in the death of both them . It was the follow-up to Alex Cox’s debut (and still best film) Repo Man which remains arguably the best punk film ever made.
The bizarre thing about Sid & Nancy is how well received it was at the time and still is held in ridiculously high esteem by some critics. Peter Bradshaw’s headline is his recent review for The Guardian reads “a welcome corrective to bland punk nostalgia” which is hilarious because it’s one of the most inaccurate depictions of punk ever on screen. The film does undeniably have 3 major aspects which save the film the performance of Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious, the performance of Chloe Webb as Nancy Spungen and the cinematography from masterpiece DOP Roger Dreakins.
However it’s an embarrassing depiction of the British punk rock scene which Cox has admitted he was very much an outsider because he was living and going to UCLA in L.A. when it was in full bloom. The majority of the UK punk movement completely disowned the film with the few exceptions of Joe Strummer who did much of the score (uncredited) and contributed a couple songs and Glen Matlock who played bass on the recorded Sex Pistols tracks. Repo Man has a much stronger sense of authenticity due to the fact he was a part of the punk scene there.
The first and most immediate criticism of the film is the shameful depiction of John Lydon aka. Johnny Rotten. Cox met with Lydon (Lydon disputes this) and according to Cox he told him it should be even more fictionalised. Cox decided to cast the Scouse actor Andrew Schofield as Lydon. His portrayal is full of worst of punk caricature and feels more like he is trying to play the jokey yobbish public image of The Damned’s Captain Sensible than portray Lydon’s undeniable wit and black humour.
In the opening scene where Sid goes to a punk gig he watches a band who is obviously meant to be X-Ray Spex because they are playing their proto-Riot grrrl anthem Oh Bondage Up Yours! The problem is however the actress playing the lead singer is a Siouxsie Sioux wannabe. This screams of the very worst of Hollywood white washing because the singer of X-Ray Spex was the sadly decreased Poly Styrene who was a mixed race woman of Somali and Scots-Irish descent.
This now takes us possibly to the film’s fundamental problem which is the romanticism of Heroin addiction. Cox in numerous interviews has said he deeply regret the ending which depicts Sid and Nancy taking a taxi cab to Heaven… yes really. The iconic scene where trash is falling while Sid and Nancy have a kiss in NYC also seems of romanticism of this toxic relationship. Cox wanted to make a film about how Sid betrayed the movement and in one scene he has Sy Richardson basically saying all he wanted to say about Sid in a methadone clinic. However despite the majority of the film being a relatively hard-hitting film about heroin addiction, the film’s last act Cox betrays everything he wanted the film to say.
The film’s depiction of Britain as the run down period it was during the punk explosion is relatively on the point but the film was made less than ten years after the events and Thatcherism hadn’t made London the yuppy world is it quite yet. Cox also did something which also screams of whitewashing Sid Vicious by choosing to have him wear the hammer & sickles of Communist than a Nazi swastika on his shirt which is what he famously wore instead. Sid wasn’t a Nazi as were all the original punks they used the swastika for it’s shock value and as a two fingers up to parents’ generation who fought in WW2.
Sid & Nancy to his day remains one of the most frustrating films to come out of the ’80s because Gary Oldman in his debut as leading man really pulls off playing Sid Vicious to such a tee on first viewing you may think you are watching the real Sid. He would of course go onto becoming one of the most versatile actors working today. Chloe Webb gets the whiney American bratiness of Nancy to a Tee but you can’t help by wonder how great Courtney Love would’ve been in the lead. Love lobbied for the role but only ended up with a smaller role in the end and we all know how she turned out. Deakins’ masterful cinematography counters Cox’s surrealism but as somebody once said in the Criterion commentary for Sid & Nancy “Bad David Lynch is Good Alex Cox”.
The disc includes a new restoration which was supervised by Roger Deakins and it looks as good as it can. Alex Cox is interviewed in the disc’s lengthiest interview and is a good overview of his experience making the film but fans may have heard a lot of this before. Deakins is the most interesting interviewee because he hasn’t really spoken about working on the film before. Finally there is painful interview with punk filmmaker/DJ Don Letts which tells the obvious stuff about punk which has been told over and over and sadly he doesn’t comment on Sid & Nancy at all.