Saturday Editor’s Pick: Sid & Nancy (1986)

by on April 8, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick


Playing Fri April 13 and Sat April 14 at Midnight at Sunshine Cinemas [Program & Tix]

 
Another cult favorite care of Weekend Midnights at the Sunshine.
 

Jon Savage for The Criterion Collection:

1986 was not a good time to make a film which attempted to capture the Punk spirit. Deep into second-term Reagan/Thatcher, American and British pop culture were infected with cynicism, hopelessness, immobility. So when Alex Cox came over with his swagger and boyish enthusiasm and tried to instigate a bit of healthy anarchy, what happened? Everybody sneered. Certainly Sid & Nancy has improved with time, or maybe it is only now that we can strip away the problems of the biopic form to distill the essence of what is on offer here: an encapsulation of the joyous chaos that British Punk let loose; a disquisition on how black humour turns into black self-destruction; a love story in the oldest sense— as archetypal and star-crossed as Romeo and Juliet. When Sid says, “I couldn’t live without you,” it is no spooning cliché but a deadly statement of intent.

 
The American section of the film—the second half—is a brilliantly sustained mood piece. Cox’s touch is sure here. He has enough respect for his characters to treat their mutual delusion with love and sympathy, and to chart the rejection that has brought them to this. The film’s core relationship is handled with perception and sensitivity. It’s hard at this point in time to find anyone with a good word to say for Nancy, but there is no doubt that she and Sid loved each other. Sid & Nancy captures the almost childlike tenderness between two teens who, despite their violent, flaring nihilism, had the innocent idealism that gets bruised by life. Their relentless trajectory could only end one way. The script takes the most plausible course, that Nancy’s death was accidental, but that the pair was in such an emotional and physical tailspin that the line between intention and accident is forever blurred. Despite their ghastly end, Sid and Nancy reaffirm the classic teenage archetype: that youthful self-destruction, indeed self-sacrifice, can mean immortality. Like Peter Pan, they can never grow old.

 

 
Chris Peabody for Time Out (London):

As Cox has been at pains to point out, this is not the story of the Sex Pistols but a love story pure and simple. And since love is never simple and rarely pure, Cox follows his emetic pair, Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, on their long downhill slide. From the coarse idiocies of the punk movement, through the permanent scrabble for any mind-frying drug, through the screeching knock-down rows to the final abandonment far from home in the Chelsea Hotel, New York, it’s a long hard ride down a tunnel filthy with every kind of degradation. Why then should anyone of sane disposition wish to see the film? Because it is still a love story, and a very touching one at that; whether waiting for her in the rain, or ripping her stockings so he can suck on her toes, or simply kissing in an alley with garbage falling all around them, there never seems to be any doubt that Sid loves Nancy OK. Quite why is hard to explain; but the movie (like Sid, as portrayed by Oldman, not without a sense of humour) is shot through with an oblique feeling for the blacker absurdities of life. Not the least of which is that, nowadays, love is not stronger than death.

 
Pat Graham for the Chicago Reader:

For all the furious acting out on view, Alex Cox’s 1986 feature about rock-scene burnouts Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen (Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb) seems a study in contemporary asceticism; their lacerating pursuit of subcultural purity couldn’t be more thorough if undertaken in a monk’s cell. Cox ascribes too much innocence to the suicidal pair, but his own savage innocence (a clever naif disguise) provides a lot of rough-edged formal benefits. The relentless visual tracking—e.g., of Nancy nattering on deliriously in literal extended takes—seems harrowingly apt: it plunges you into the maelstrom directly, without conventional cutaways, editing, or other distancing devices. A few too many moralistic foreshadowings, but most of the time Cox’s situations and characters develop on their own eloquently entropic terms.

 

 

Janet Maslin for The New York Times:

Few would have suspected, when Sid Vicious died of a heroin overdose in 1979 after having been charged with the stabbing death of his girlfriend Nancy Spungen several months earlier, that this story had the makings of a big-screen romance. Even now, there are those who wouldn’t quite understand. But Alex Cox, who directed ”Repo Man,” saw the Sid and Nancy story as the occasion for a sordid, intentionally ugly and sometimes unexpectedly beautiful film, a pitch-black comedy about wasted love. At the very least, you have to admire his nerve.
 
It’s not every film maker who credits special thanks to both Luis Bunuel and Dee Dee Ramone, but then Mr. Cox doesn’t fit any recognizable mold. His decision to film the Sid and Nancy story (which has also been immortalized in at least one play, Denis Spedaliere’s ”Vicious”) is by no means the most idiosyncratic thing he has done. ”Sid and Nancy” has a slow, almost lyrical shot of the title characters as they sit catatonically in bed, high on heroin, until the orangey light flickering across their faces lets the viewer know the room is on fire. There’s another image, also lovely in its own weird way, in which they kiss in an alley while being showered with flying garbage. ”Sid and Nancy” doesn’t try to win its audience’s sympathy in any conventional way, which is just as well, since that would have been a losing battle. But it does succeed in offering bleak, nasty and sometimes hilarious glimpses of life in the punk demimonde.

 

 
And hey, Alex Baldwin likes it. He lists it as one of his Top 10 Favorite Criterion DVDs:

Any film that propelled Gary Oldman to stardom is an important film, as I believe Oldman is the greatest film actor of his generation. The lives of the waifish/shrewish Nancy Spungeon and enfant terrible Sid Vicious make for a tough haul and present a somewhat jaundiced vision of the seventies punk scene. However, Sid and Nancy features director Alex Cox at the peak of his talent, cinematography by the great Roger Deakins, and a wonderful, damaged kookiness from Chloe Webb. But it’s the preternaturally gifted Gary Oldman you can’t take your eyes off of.

 

Andre Dellamorte for Collider:

In Alex Cox’s film, there’s just as much deconstruction of myth as there is mythmaking, but it works for the movie. Though the period of addiction is harrowing, it’s still a strange romance, and oddly touching, and it never feels as dullish as most bio-pics by never going too far back into their lives.
 
Energy is a palpable thing in cinema, and though there were obvious compromises to the story (Nazi paraphernalia is replaced by Communist attire for one), the film works because it’s done by a smart man who’s not wasting time. Though it’s not great historical recreation, and the makers have obviously taken some liberties with the material, the film is moving and powerful nonetheless, even if it’s flawed by the nature of spending at least forty minutes of the film with junkies who are destroying themselves. But Cox is on point here, doing great work with the supporting players (including Courtney Love) by feeding them all interesting backstories that pop on screen on multiple viewings, and by finding the right tone for the piece. Bio-pics are inherently problematic cinematically, and that’s what works against Sid and Nancy the most (having to tell a linear story), but when Cox nails it – as he does in the shot of the two making out in a rainstorm of trash – it’s like no other.

 

 
Jennie Kermode for Eye for Film:

A story like this could easily have been utterly bleak, despite the powerful music. It is to Cox’s credit that he packs it full of energy and humour that keep one gripped right up until the end, even as Sid and Nancy’s lives spiral toward seemingly inescapable destruction. Nancy whines. Sid lashes out. Nancy threatens to leave him, but, of course, she’ll always come back. There’s a undeniable tenderness between them at times, yet neither is able to cope with the world, and they’re increasingly unable to cope with each other. Ultimately they find their way to the Chelsea Hotel.
 
Alex Cox has said since that he thinks he went too easy on his protagonists in the end, but this certainly isn’t an advert for heroin or for the way of life that goes with it. It’s played with a raw honesty by Gary Oldman, who perfectly inhabits Sid’s pallid skin, and Chloe Webb, giving the performance of a lifetime as Nancy, who remains magnetic despite all the ugliness of her behaviour. There’s great chemistry between them which serves to remind us what Sid and Nancy might have enjoyed had they pulled themselves together.
 
If you’re new to the films of Alex Cox, this is a great introduction to his work. It is also, without doubt, one of the best rock biopics out there.

 

 
Budd Wilkins for Slant:

By refusing to reduce itself to a rehashed Sex Pistols “greatest hits” parade, Sid & Nancy fortuitously sidesteps one of the biggest pitfalls of the musical biopic, examining events instead with an eye for telling detail and a healthy sense of absurdist humor that’s evident in even the bleakest scenes. Cox welds improvisatory looseness and a shabby-chic veracity with flights of fancy and off-the-cuff surrealism, most noticeably in a scene that reconstructs an early music video for Sid’s sloppy, profanity-riddled cover of “My Way.” Sid stumbles and slurs his way down a neon-lit staircase and through part of Sinatra’s tune, before drawing a revolver from his holster and blowing away various swells, decked out in tuxes and formal attire, who make up his audience. His final victim is Nancy, who refuses to play dead, however, and joins him on stage for a backlit kiss, as the shot ends with Griffith-style iris in.
 
Sid & Nancy‘s first half offers an immersive plunge into the punk lifestyle, capturing with wit and verve its anti-authoritarian sneer and DIY ethos, while the film slowly circles the drain during a dour second half given over to disillusion and dissolution. As a result, while it eludes biopic cliché, the film hits all the requisite beats now familiar in a Doomed Junkie saga, establishing a generic iconography that both Sid & Nancy and its near contemporary, Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy, did much to insinuate into the pop culture zeitgeist. Although Cox has suggested the film was meant to be an unapologetic anti-drug tract, Sid & Nancy, far from just saying no, on the contrary romanticizes its pathetic doomed couple. Witness the iconic scene where Sid and Nancy lean against a dumpster, kissing in silhouette while trash falls in slow motion around them. Sights like this suggest that Cox and company might well have cribbed a title from the writings of famed opium-eater Thomas de Quincey and called their film The Pleasures and Pains of Heroin.

 

 
Lauren Wissot for The House Next Door:

Sid & Nancy, Alex Cox’s heartfelt take on the true-life relationship between Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen 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.
 
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.
 
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.

 

 
Rumsey Taylor for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

The outcome of Sid & Nancy is known before the film begins, and this fact pervades the entire film with an ever-present and urgent dread (the central conflict, largely, is the diving trajectory of the couple’s mutual depression). The title couple is trapped in an array of vices: their codependency fuels their mutual addiction to heroin, and their commitment to each other (or love) disables them from separating. The inevitable deaths of Sid and Nancy are the only logical conclusions to their behavior.
 
Director Alex Cox is crucial to the material. Cox is British, firstly, and paid toll to the punk scene in his previous film Repo Man. The film occurs in alleys and decrepit bathrooms, where smears of oil, radical haircuts, and tough attitudes are requisite. The film is merely observant at times, though it is arguably clear no other director would better honor the fundamental tenets of punk. (In making-of material on Sid & Nancy, Cox is indistinguishable among the characters he films.)
 
Much in the same way as the forces at the helm of Romeo and Juliet, the film is divided between two operative powers (this theme is keenly mirrored in the couple’s nationalities): the first half of the film is in Britain depicting Sid’s introduction to Nancy and to heroin; the final half of the film follows the Sex Pistols’ American tour. The punk movement is largely isolated to Britain, and the band’s presence in America is seen as some sort of radical exhibition. At a show in Texas, cowboy hats strew the audience. This is not the same crowd that bought their fame.These are characters who announce their abandon of authoritative repression. As empty as their ideas may be, there is a tying and tragic underline to their desperate cry for infamy: the threat of cynicism will poison the idealism of their youth. Live fast die young and leave a good-looking corpse. The ill-fated couple, here, were but two casualties.

 

 
Todd McCarthy talks to Cox for Film Comment:

Why did you make Sid and Nancy?

“I thought it was a really good love story, in the sense that love, in my humble experience of it, isn’t like it is in Flashdance, where the only problems are external, or even Letter To Brezhnev, where love is momentarily in doubt when you think that the guy might be married. But in love there is so much of tripping your partner out, laying traps for them, and putting them in difficult situations to test them. There’s an awful lot of very strange and insane stuff attendant to being in love that normally doesn’t get dealt with in films.”
 
This stands apart from the Hollywood films in which ill-fated lovers are doomed by society.

That’s true. Even though they are products of society, as are we all, there are many people from similar circumstances as Sid and Nancy who don’t become junkies and don’t end up the way they did.”
 
The film has one of the most unblinking, matter-of-fact presentations of drug addiction since Burroughs’ ‘Junky.’

“Whoa! Well, thank you very much for saying that. That’s very good, because that was, of course, a major source in Gary Oldman’s and Chloe Webb’s preparation for the roles.”
 
Addiction is an extraordinary demand to play without getting into it. How did they rehearse it?

“I don’t think they were really interested in getting into it. They watched an awful lot of terribly depressing films of people jacking up in bathrooms. Garywent and hung around with some guys that were on a program in London, and Chloe had a roommate who, I think, died of drug addiction. I didn’t know that at the time, but I read that in an interview she did the other day in a sensational tabloid. “I Tried To Save Her But It Was Too Late,” was the headline.
 
“With Sid, there was a conflict with what he was supposed to represent and what he really was. Gary understood that very clearly. When we were in New York, guys would try to get Gary. There are pathetic junky wankers staggering around New York with ‘Sid’s Kids’ written on their backs in studs, and they follow the life of the maestro to the letter, which completely misses the point. Sid became exactly what he started out rebelling against- aloof and junky rockers who can’t perform.
 
“I read in that book about John Belushi, Wired, that he and a very famous actor had a conversation about how. ‘Oh, yeah, if I were getting ready to make a film about junk, I’d do it.’ That strikes me as not very sensible. That would be a strange side alley to take, and it would have nothing to do with acting. That’s self-indulgence.”

 

 
Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

“Sid and Nancy” suggests that Vicious never lived long enough to really get his feet on the ground, to figure out where he stood and where his center was. He was handed great fame and a certain amount of power and money, and indirectly told that his success depended on staying fucked up. This is a big assignment for a kid who would otherwise be unemployable. Vicious did his best, fighting and vomiting and kicking his way through his brief days and long nights, until Spungen brought him a measure of relief. Some nights she was someone to hold, and other nights she was someone to hold onto. What difference did it make?
 
“Sid and Nancy” makes these observations with such complexity, such vividness, and such tenderness that at the end of the film a curious thing happens. You do not weep for Vicious, or Spungen, but maybe you weep for all of us, that we have been placed in a world where it is possible for people to make themselves so unhappy. Vicious was not a hero, just a guy who got himself into a situation he couldn’t handle. But to thousands of London kids, he represented an affront to a society that offered no jobs, no training, no education, and no entry into the world of opportunity. If life offers you nothing, the least you can offer it is the finger.
 
Performances like the ones in this film go beyond movie acting and into some kind of evocation of real lives. The movie was directed by Alex Cox, who made “Repo Man” a couple of years ago, and here he announces himself as a great director. He and his actors pull off the neat trick of creating a movie full of noise and fury, and telling a meticulous story right in the middle of it.

 

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