During the second half of the 1980s a promising English filmmaker in the enfant terrible mould dramatised one of punk music’s most notoriously ill-fated love stories. Mark Fraser revisits a work which, despite its flaws, seemingly fulfils its peculiar ambitions.
WARNING: This review contains spoilers.
For those who consider themselves true aficionados of English punk music – or insist on reasonable historical accuracy in their biopics – then Alex Cox’s 1986 opus Sid and Nancy is probably a no go zone.
While Cox, who co-wrote the screenplay with Abbe Wool, doesn’t exactly treat his titular subjects with complete gay abandon, there are times when he comes reasonably close.
The movie – which was the director’s second feature after 1984’s quirky Repo Man – is something of a mixed bag, being more of a homage to the late 1970s English punk scene than a straight-down-the-line account of one of the most highly publicised and self-destructive relationships that was lived out during this era of cultural chaos.
As many critics of the film have already pointed out, Sid and Nancy only features cover versions of songs by the Sex Pistols, for whom bassist John Ritchie (AKA Sid Vicious – Gary Oldman) played before pursuing a disastrous (not to mention short lived) solo career in New York following the iconoclastic group’s demise.
In addition, pretty much everything else on the soundtrack is performed by the late Joe Strummer (a founding member of The Clash), The Pogues, Pray for Rain and, in a couple of amazingly performed scenes, Oldman himself, who at one stage brilliantly re-enacts Vicious’ hilarious take on Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”, a rendition which originally appeared in Julien Temple’s gimmicky “documentary” The Great Rock ‘n Roll Swindle (1980).
For the average filmgoer this kind of substitution may seem a bit strange given it’s more than likely there would not have been a Sid and Nancy romance had the Sex Pistols never existed. Fans of the group, however, will probably see this more as an outrage – particularly as it sort of negates the impact the band has had on the evolution of popular music.
Meanwhile, one of the movie’s biggest distractors who was close to the real action – Pistols lead singer John Lydon (AKA Johnny Rotten) – not only described his own portrayal (by Andrew Schofield) as ridiculous and absurd, but also accused the work of lacking a “sense of reality”, humiliating its leading man and celebrating heroin abuse, thus making it one of the “lowest forms of life”.*
Another valid criticism of Sid and Nancy is that it doesn’t provide a lot of dramatic context for the key protagonists outside of a brief opening scene (Sid’s arrest, and subsequent incarceration, for the murder of his girlfriend Nancy Spungen – played by Chloe Webb – in a rundown New York hotel room), a prolonged linear flashback and surreal fairy tale ending.
This means, throughout most of the film, while it’s obvious both are hopeless junkies, there’s no earnest attempt to explain the source of their debilitating despair. In this regard it’s fair to say the movie – which touches upon fundamental human condition stuff like love, fame, anger, addiction, excess, rebellion, self-destruction and disillusionment – lacks a certain raison d’etre.
Additionally, Sid and Nancy borders on being sexist – as shown in the depiction of the two leads’ death. While Cox has no compunction in showing Nancy slowly bleeding to death on the bathroom floor of their Chelsea Hotel room during October 1978 after being stabbed in the stomach by her whacked out beau, Vicious’ demise is nowhere near as difficult to endure.
Choosing to completely overlook his eventual heroin overdose (in February 1979), the director instead ends Sid’s life on a grimly whimsical note, during which one of punk’s best known bass players succumbs to the joys of disco while wandering around a dilapidated part of New Jersey’s riverfront.
Although it may not have been intentional, it’s arguable that this kind of gender imbalance (a dying female drug addict pathetically watching her life blood drain away versus a smiling and dancing male ghost grooving out to KC and the Sunshine Band) smells a bit like misogyny given the woman is forced to suffer immeasurable pain while her boyfriend killer figuratively escapes unscathed.
When stacked together, these complaints constitute a reasonable body of gripes.
Given the eventual outcome, though, it’s doubtful Cox really cared about any of these points of order. Armed with some real life characters and a colourful milieu in which to put them, it seems the director was more intent on making a nostalgia-laced fashion statement than a movie which accurately reflected the public record, choosing to put a sometimes comedic version of history under his own idiosyncratic microscope.
Purposely skipping the rise of the Sex Pistols (and thus watering down this event’s broader cultural significance), Cox introduces the London-based band when it is already in full swing and set to embark on its one and only American tour in January 1978 – a career move which in real life marked the beginning of the end for the group.
Along the way super nihilist Sid meets junkie/groupie Nancy, their subsequent juvenile antics forming the basis of a tragic love story wherein the finer points of tragedy give way to unbridled self-indulgence and drug-addled stupidity.
Under these sorts of circumstances it is very difficult to feel any deal of sympathy for either of this turbulent pair, even when they seem to be at their most vulnerable. But perhaps this was ultimately Cox’s (and Wool’s) intention – he didn’t just want larger- than-life characters to conveniently mythologise; he also set out to make one of the splashiest anti-biopics around.
Of course this is not to say that Cox’s portrayal of Sid and Nancy’s bizarre relationship – or the world in which they lived – is a complete blasphemy. While the film may be factually inaccurate, it is not bereft of class.
Aside from the gusto performances of Oldman and Webb, this good looking movie also boasts some impressive cinematography (by the great English cameraman Roger Deakins), first rate production design (by Andrew McAlpine), art direction (Lynda Burbank and J Rae Fox) and costumes (Catherine Cook and Theda De Ramus).
It also moves along at a jolly pace, which is no mean feat given the sometimes wearisome nature of its subject matter.
Nevertheless Sid and Nancy unfolds in a kind of dramatic isolation by concentrating on a predominantly chronological version of events that doesn’t provide any relevant background information.
By doing so it leaves a few gaps in the narrative, making the whole story a little more salacious than perhaps it deserves to be.
According to American writer Pamela Des Barres, for instance, Ritchie – who was born in 1957 and left home when he was 15 – had been abandoned as a child by his air force father and “shuttled” around by his dirt poor mother (Anne Beverley, who only appears ever so fleetingly in the film despite the fact she owned the heroin with which her son eventually overdosed) “through the drug-torn hippie haze of London’s flower power”. Meanwhile, Nancy (born 1958), a “highly hyperactive child” who had “all but toppled her suburban family back in Philadelphia” before becoming a groupie, was in and out of psychiatric institutions since the age of 11 and eventually diagnosed as a schizophrenic (Des Barres, 1996).
Much of this kind of vital background information, however, is conveniently ignored by Cox and Wool, although the director does include a couple of scenes when the couple semi-trash Beverley’s London flat and, later, treat Spungen’s kin with horrific disdain while visiting her American family (an event chronicled by Nancy’s mother Deborah in her book And I Don’t Want to Live This Life).
As a result the film remains fairly ambivalent towards its protagonists, even as they approach their final, wretched train wreck.
Another piece of freewheeling artistic licence perpetrated by Cox occurs when the Pistols do eventually embark on their 11-day US tour, a sequence which opens with a stunning visual salvo that is as grandiose as it is fabricated.
In it a helicopter flies (in slow motion) above an expansive stretch of desert highway, along which a small convoy – made up of a graffiti-covered tour bus, two large equipment trucks as well as a forward and rear guard of bikies – makes its way across the desolate landscape.
It transpires the group is travelling to its first concert in Atlanta, the first stop of a touring schedule that also includes gigs in Memphis, San Antonio, Baton Rouge, Dallas, Tulsa and, finally, San Francisco.
While this moment is an effective piece of symbolism (representing the out-of-town band venturing into the vast American market), the whole thing doesn’t ring true for a number of reasons.
First of all, the Pistols arrived by plane in New York (on January 4) and was then flown straight to Atlanta for its first gig, after which it travelled by air to all of its venues before embarking on the bus journey from Tulsa to San Francisco – a leg of the journey which admittedly did include a trip across the Nevada Desert.
Secondly, there were no bikies acting as security, although the band was accompanied by “two burley Vietnam vets” who were employed by Warner Brothers as minders (Bromberg, 1989).
Thirdly, the convoy on the Tulsa-San Francisco leg of the trip, as portrayed by Cox, would in no way have been as impressive.
Finally, when the group did undertake this part of the journey, some of its members chose to fly.
Why Cox decided to substitute the anti-establishment Sex Pistols for corporate rockers The Rolling Stones circa 1969 – when the latter did use the Hells Angels as security for a while and probably employed just-as-massive vehicles to lug its stage equipment from venue to venue – is anyone’s guess. The fact he did, though, suggests his penchant for mythologising and embellishment far outweighed his quest for the truth.
Although Sid and Nancy never comes too close to being the biopic that perhaps it could have been, in all honesty it doesn’t really seem to try. Through its employment of alternative realities and distorted historical facts, Cox and Wool mould the story to suit their own whims, effectively pushing it down the same one way street as its lead characters are travelling while expressing neither regret nor remorse during its 114 minute running time.
Whether this was the right way to go or not will remain debatable. Certainly there were some critics of the day who didn’t mind this approach, including Rolling Stone’s Fred Schruers, who believed – based on Repo Man, Sid and Nancy as well as 1987’s awful Straight to Hell – that if the director was anyone’s heir, it would be Jean-Luc Godard’s given he was “prolific, looking to astonish (and was) committed to social critiques” (Schruers, 1987).**
“Rebellious as he may be, he is in the game for the classic goal of character revealed on film,” he gushed.
Looking back, such plaudits were obviously premature. Nevertheless, there was a time when Cox did look like he could take the world by storm, and Sid and Nancy helped add some fuel to his early fire.
In addition, the director showed that, visually at least, he was willing to act as provocateur – something which was never more apparent than in his politically-fuelled biopic Walker (1987), wherein he tackled another historical subject (this time the American invasion of Nicaragua during the 1850s) in a far more unconventional way.
And, regardless of what some punk music fans might think of Sid and Nancy, Cox undeniably does live up to some of their standards and expectations, even if many of them simply don’t like to admit it.
Back in 1999, for instance, writer David Kerekes said while the film had the “veneer” of punk (in terms of characters, life style and music) it lacked “earnest anarchism”.
“Punk rock movies are shambolic. Or at least they ought to be,” he argued.
“Films are rarely impetuous. They take too long to watch and longer still to make. Laborious mechanisms, like plot, characters and timescale are generally required.”
Take a close look at Sid and Nancy and it’s difficult to deny that – like punk music – it too is anarchic, shambolic and impetuous.
Words by Mark Fraser
Top 10 Films reviewed Sid and Nancy on Blu-ray courtesy of Studiocanal. Sid and Nancy was released on Blu-ray August 29, 2016.
*These details were sourced from Wikipedia, which attributed them to Lydon’s 1994 book (co-written with Keith and Kent Zimmerman) Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs. Interestingly, it’s in the final pages of this account of events that Lydon expresses the kind of remorseful regret that is completely lacking from the movie: “I could have helped Sid more. If only I hadn’t been lazy and washed my hands of him like Pontius Pilate. That’s something I’ll have to carry to the grave with me. I don’t know what I could have done, but I know I should have done something.”
**Cox, however, may not agree with this given he mentions Luis Bunuel in his list of acknowledgements at the end of the movie, suggesting he has a stronger affinity with the Spanish surrealist than he does the French/Swiss avant-garde auteur.
Pamela Des Barres “Hit Me With a Flower” – Rock Bottom, Little, Brown and Company, 1996, p 264-274
Craig Bromberg The Wicked Ways of Malcolm McLaren, Harper and Row Publishers, 1989, p 173-183
Fred Schruers “Rebel Rouser” – Rolling Stone (Australia), November 1987, p 29-30, 47
David Kerekes “Tinseltown Rebellion” – Punk Rock: So What? Roger Sabin – editor, Routledge (Taylor and Francis Group), 1999, p 67-71
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