Sid and Nancy, 1986, directed by Alex Cox, written by Alex Cox and Abbe Wool.
What can you say about a twenty-year-old girl who died? Well, if she was Nancy Spungen, you can't say much about her being beautiful or brilliant. I don't think she loved Mozart or Bach, and I'm sure she didn't love the Beatles. But she loved Sid Vicious. And I don't think Alex Cox wanted to make Love Story, anyway.
Of course, he didn't want to make The Buddy Holly Story, either. You're kind of setting yourself up for failure when your subjects are Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols and Nancy Spungen, the camp follower that he may or may not have killed. Most music biopics (e.g., Ray) take for granted that their subject is talented; the story is usually about them trying to wrestle their immense talent into productive directions. You can't really do that when you're making a movie about Sid Vicious—he doesn't give you much to work with. He was the least talented member of a band that was never famous for its skill. In movies like Ray, the movie takes off when the main character gets their personal goals in line with their artistic ones; in Sid and Nancy things don't really get going until Sid leaves the Sex Pistols. To put it bluntly, Sid's artistic goals aren't very interesting; and his psychotic lack of introspection means his personal goals aren't much to look at either. They're funny, though; here's the scene where Nancy brings Sid to her family's home for an incredibly uncomfortable dinner:
So! Are you gonna make an honest
woman of our Nancy, Sid?
Well, she's always been an honest
woman to me, Granpa, so... she's
never lied to me.
But what are your, uh, intentions?
Well, first off, we're going to go
down to the methadone clinic on
Monday and then, uh, Nancy's gonna
get me some gigs. And then we're
gonna go off and, like, live in
Paris, and just sort of go out in a
blaze of glory. But don't worry,
though, you know, you'll be proud
For what it's worth, Sid achieves every goal but the last one.
The structure of the movie is unusual; it's a straight two-acter. The first half is set in Britain and America and is more closely tied to the actual career of Sid Vicious; it's interesting enough, but it only really transcends the squalor of its main character in the scenes where Cox focuses on Sid's feelings for Nancy Spungen. There's a beautiful sequence during the Sex Pistol's disastrous Silver Jubilee celebration where Sid and Nancy walk through police mayhem like ghosts. It's one long slow-motion tracking shot backwards through the chaos, and it's gorgeous; you really believe these two people have been chosen by fate to love each other.
Cox gives his characters' doomed romanticism full reign in the second half, after the Sex Pistols have broken up. As Sid and Nancy descend into heroin addiction and become increasingly divorced from the world around them, Cox shows them as residents of their own, purely subjective world; notably when Sid's cigarette sets their room at the Chelsea Hotel on fire and the two of them sit in bed watching things burn until they're dragged out. And of course, there's this:
Add a song by Pray for Rain and you're well on your way into mythmaking. The second half of this movie is brilliant; Cox manages to make Nancy Spungen and Sid Vicious not just bearable, but tragic.
By most accounts, they were neither. The DVD features footage from D. O. A.: A Rite of Passage, a documentary about punk that features an "interview" with the two of them. Sid, clearly strung out, keeps passing in and out of sleep, mumbling incoherently while Nancy screeches at him to wake up and answer the filmmaker's questions. Sid lets his cigarette burn a hole in the blanket; Nancy's voice is near unbearable. Gary Oldman's Sid Vicious isn't 100% coherent all the time, but he's worlds ahead of the actual article. Chloe Webb's Nancy isn't pleasant to listen to, but she, too, is cleaned up a bit for film.
That seems to be the main problem people who were there at the time have with the film (I base this opinion solely on the commentary track); Cox wasn't true enough to the actual story. Sid often wore a shirt with a swastika; Cox changed it to a hammer and sickle. I don't really buy the argument that a filmmaker has a responsibility to his subjects or the truth or whatever; I think bending the truth to accomplish narrative ends is a requirement. In this case, I'm willing to forgive a lot; for one thing, I'm not sure I'd want to spend two hours with the real Sid and Nancy. For another, I'll support any story that can make the last scene of Sid and Nancy seem earned; it gave me chills.
- Cox may have prettied up Sid and Nancy's story. The marketing department at Embassy cleaned up Alex Cox's story. Here's the same still from above, as it appears on the movie poster:
- Notice the vanishing garbage, the chopped off arms,
the miniskirt, and Chloe Webb's magical expanding breasts.
- Sid and Nancy marks the film debut of Courtney Love, who called Abbe Wool at home during casting and insisted that she should play Nancy. She didn't get to be Nancy, but she did get to be Gretchen, one of Nancy's American friends. Here she is, pre-diet and pre-nosejob:
- Greil Marcus is on the commentary track, and, wow. He consistently starts with something that seems interesting and then goes off the rails completely. Example: he correctly points out that Sid and Nancy doesn't spend a lot of time placing its characters in a cultural or social context. He's right, and I'm sick of movies that go to great lengths to do this; e.g., Seabiscuit and Cinderella Man. Horses and boxers didn't restore America's broken spirits during the Great Depression. And the Sex Pistols didn't save rock and roll forever, either. So, so far, so good. But Marcus goes on to say that Cox expects the viewers themselves to add social context; that is, to draw the obvious connections between the Sex Pistols and the Gordon Riots of 1780, not to mention the Ranters of the 1640s and 50s. Really, Greil? You think Alex Cox had antinomian religious reformers on the brain when he made Sid and Nancy? And he expects viewers to draw the same comparisons? It takes a lot for me to say someone's intellectually pretentious, but wow.
- Your actors don't have to look like the people they're playing; Oldman's Sid Vicious is great. But. Here's Johnny Rotten on the Bill Grudy show in 1976:
- And here's Andrew Schofield playing Johnny Rotten:
- Not bad. But here's Alex Cox during the filming of Sid and Nancy:
- I dunno, Andrew, I think Alex just wants it more.