Wednesday 20th September, 2017

Sid and Nancy

Director: Alex Cox
Screenplay: Alex Cox and Abbe Wool
Stars: Gary Oldman (Sid Vicious), Chloe Webb (Nancy Spungen), David Hayman (Malcolm), Debby Bishop (Phoebe), Andrew Schofield (John), Xander Berkeley (Bowery Snax), Perry Benson (Paul), Tony London (Steve), Sandy Baron (Hotelier - U.S.A.), Sy Richardson (Methadone Caseworker), Edward Tudor-Pol (Hotelier - U.K.), Biff Yeager (Detective), Courtney Love (Gretchen)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1986
Country: U.K.
Sid and Nancy Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Sid and Nancy

Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy dramatizes the tempestuous, ultimately lethal 18-month relationship between Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen (Cloe Webb). The period of time covered in the film, roughly 1977 to 1978, coincides with the elevation of punk—as both a musical form and a way of life—in the U.K., and Cox’s film is most successful in relating the anger, nihilism, anarchic humor, and chaos that went with it. Sid and Nancy is a chronicle of punk’s gutter-snipe rhetoric (to borrow an excellent turn of phrase from cultural scholar Dick Hebdige), menacing visual style, raging sense of performance, and loathing of anything that smacked of normality or conformity.

The film itself, at its best, rants and rages and embodies the punk aesthetic while also transcending it in moments of lyrical visual beauty (the most memorable instance is a gorgeous slow-motion shot of Sid and Nancy kissing against a dumpster while garbage rains down from above). As a portrait of crazed, intense romance—l’amour fou, as the French would say—the film is decidedly less successful because its protagonists are ultimately impenetrable. The film is quite disturbing in its relentless downward trajectory, as Sid and Nancy devolve from a pinnacle of momentary stardom to a long, drawn-out, grungy nonexistence of heroin addiction and isolation. At the same time, though, Cox seems to want us to see them as romantic antiheroes—Bonnie and Clyde in fishnets, leather, and dog collars wielding drugs and musical instruments instead of machine guns—and they’re just not that interesting.

After a prologue in which we see Sid being arrested at the Hotel Chelsea in New York City for Nancy’s murder in October 1978, the film flashes back to early 1977 when Sid and Sex Pistols lead singer Johnny Rotten (Andrew Schofield) first meet Nancy, an American groupie who has made her way to London and is staying with Phoebe (Debby Bishop), a dominatrix. Although Sid at first rejects Nancy’s intentions (which are primarily sexual), he eventually finds himself drawn to her, and they begin a torrid, twisted relationship that is based on a kind of mutual self-destruction (the fact that they take a death vow together comes as no surprise). Sid, as played by Oldman, is something of a goof—a scrawny, maladjusted kid with spiky hair, hollow cheeks, and wild eyes who tries on the pretense of punk anger and nihilism and finds it a good fit, while Nancy, despite being not yet 20 years old, is something altogether more intentional and dangerous.

The screenplay by Cox and Abbe Wool does not shy away from the long-standing narrative that Nancy was a corrupting influence on Sid, drawing him away from the Sex Pistols during their brief stint at the top of the trans-Atlantic pop culture heap and turning him inward, where there was nothing but the two of them. The second half of the film, which comes after the Sex Pistols’ collapse midway through a disastrous American tour, takes place largely inside the squalid room Sid and Nancy shared at the Hotel Chelsea, where they drift in and out of heroin-induced hazes, becoming cognizant just long enough to either stumble down to the methadone clinic or to score more smack in a grimy back alley. They interactions veer wildly from the pathetically co-dependent to the violently angry, with Nancy often playing the role of instigator while Sid lashes out defensively. One could argue that Sid was destined to destroy himself (this is someone, after all, who expressed himself by smashing his forehead against a brick wall and carving Nancy’s name in his chest with a razor blade), although one could also argue that his demise was greatly hastened by Nancy, who introduced him to heroin and flamed his already self-destructive tendencies in the name of some kind of twisted romantic ideal.

There is genuine power in the performances by Oldman and Webb, who leave everything on the screen, but it is hard to generate much interest in their characters’ claustrophobic tailspin, especially since there is no suspense as to where it will end. (Well, that’s not entirely true since there is, to this day, continued controversy over Nancy’s death, with some arguing that someone else stabbed her in the stomach and let Sid be the fall guy. Cox and Wool go with the idea that Sid did, indeed, stab her, but it was largely accidental and thus a tragic culmination of their love-hate relationship. It could literally only end in bloodshed.) Many of the scenes in the second half of the film are literally difficult to watch because they convey so nakedly the wretched depths to which they had sunk, although Cox, the cult auteur behind Repo Man (1984), finds plenty of space to insert black comedy, whether it be a disastrous visit by Sid and Nancy to her very upstanding middle-class family, or a scene in which they accidentally set their hotel room on fire and are so drugged out of their minds that they just sit and watch it burn.

Cox takes the docudrama approach and hits on most of high (that is to say, low) points of Sid’s brief tenure as bassist for the Sex Pistols, including their notorious television interview with Bill Grundy, the chaotic recording of their one album Never Mind the Bollocks, and their even more chaotic U.S. tour. The film’s accumulation of physical details is consistently impressive, and Cox makes us feel the squalor of dank hotel rooms, the clutter of back alleys, and the perpetually overcast skies that makes the world seem so dismal that only the roar of punk can crack the tedium. Yet, the film is ultimately too hollow at its core because its characters are hollow, driving incessantly toward the end to which we know they are destined without ever slowing down or veering toward the curb. There is some nobility in the film’s relentlessness and single-minded focus, but not enough to redeem its lack of having anything much to say beyond what we get on the surface.

Sid and Nancy Director-Approved Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
Audio
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo
  • SubtitlesEnglish
    Supplements
  • Audio commentary by cowriter Abbe Wool, actors Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb, cultural historian Greil Marcus, filmmakers Julien Temple and Lech Kowalski, and musician Eliot Kidd from 1994
  • Audio commentary by cowriter-director Alex Cox and actor Andrew Schofield from 2001
  • Video interview with Alex Cox
  • Excerpts from Sad Vacation 2016 documentary
  • England’s Glory 1987 making-of documentary
  • 1976 Bill Grundy interview with the Sex Pistols on British television
  • Rare telephone interview from 1978 with Sid Vicious
  • Interviews with Vicious and Nancy Spungen from the 1980 documentary D.O.A.: A Right of Passage
  • Excerpts from a 1976 episode of The London Weekend Show
  • Essay by author Jon Savage and a 1986 piece compiled by Cox about Vicious, Spungen, and the making of the film
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateAugust 22, 2017

    COMMENTS
    Criterion’s new 4K digital restoration, which was made from the original 35mm camera negative under the supervision of cinematographer Roger Deakins, is a substantial improvement over both their previously available 1998 DVD and MGM’s 2011 Blu-ray (compared to the MGM Blu-ray, Criterion’s disc is significantly brighter, and numerous scenes have completely different hues, usually bluer). The image is duly impressive, with excellent color presentation that really emphasizes Deakins’s visual transformation from bright, saturated hues to a nearly monochromatic palette by the end. Detail is excellent while maintaining a strong film-like texture; grain is definitely present, and some shots (such as the slow-motion shot of Sid going through a plate glass window) are grainier than others. Overall, this is an excellent presentation of the film as it should look. We get a choice of soundtracks: either the original two-channel stereo soundtrack or an alternate 5.1-channel mix, both of which are presented in DTS-HD Master Audio. They are very good, and it’s really up to your taste as to which one will sound better. Most of the supplements have appeared on previous Criterion editions, dating back to the 1994 laserdisc. From the laserdisc we have a fascinating audio commentary by cowriter Abbe Wool, actors Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb, cultural historian Greil Marcus, filmmakers Julien Temple and Lech Kowalski, and musician Eliot Kidd; England’s Glory, a 1987 making-of documentary (30 min.); the infamous 1976 Bill Grundy interview with the Sex Pistols on British television; a telephone interview from 1978 with Sid Vicious (13 min.); and interview footage with Vicious and Nancy Spungen from the 1980 documentary D.O.A.: A Right of Passage (10 min.). Criterion’s Blu-ray also includes a second audio commentary recorded in 2001 by cowriter-director Alex Cox and actor Andrew Schofield, which had previously been available only on the Region 2 Momentum DVD. In addition, Criterion has added quite a few new supplements: a new 30-minute video interview with Cox; 15 minutes of excerpts from the 2016 documentary Sad Vacation about Sid and Nancy’s relationship; and 14 minutes of excerpts from a 1976 episode of The London Weekend Show about the British punk movement. The insert booklet includes the same essay by author Jon Savage that was included on Criterion’s DVD and and a 1986 piece compiled by Cox about Vicious, Spungen, and the making of the film.

    Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © MGM / The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (2.5)

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