I’m not a huge punk fan. The original movement came and went a few years before I was born and later punk iterations never did much for me. However, The Clash’s London Calling album has long been one of my all time favourites and when I was a teenager I also got a lot of play out of my CD copy of the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks. It was and still is a powerful album, full of youthful exuberance and fiery anger at the damaged establishment, which spoke to me back when I was a youngster. I never really looked into the history of the band though. Although I’ve long been a music lover, I’ve rarely paid much interest in the private lives of the artists involved. I tend to let the lyrics and music do the talking and leave the rest a mystery. Some of the Sex Pistols’ history is unavoidable though and I was aware of their troubled and brief existence, even if I didn’t know all the details.
My love of the band’s sole studio album helped pique my interest in reviewing this 30th Anniversary re-release of Sid & Nancy then, along with an interest in its director, Alex Cox, who wrote and directed the rather excellent punk movie Repo Man. Sid & Nancy dramatises the relationship between the Sex Pistols’ bass player Sid Vicious (played by Gary Oldman) and sometime prostitute Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb). The two met in early 1977 and quickly formed a very destructive relationship, based largely around heroin. Nancy was already a user before she met Sid and it’s reported (and suggested in the film) that she introduced him to the drug. The two grew heavily dependent on one another, as well as the drugs, and their lives inevitably both came to tragic ends. In October 1978, Nancy was found dead with a single stab wound to her abdomen in the bathroom of the infamous Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan, with Sid laid in a drug induced stupor on the bed across the room. After being arrested for Nancy’s murder, Sid died of a heroin overdose a few months later. The film opens with the discovery of Nancy’s body by the police and flashes back to their first meeting to tell the story of their brief time together.
I’m not generally a fan of biopics, so I always approach them with some trepidation. Thankfully, Cox sidesteps a lot of the aspects I dislike about the format. There’s no rose tinting of what the couple did, they’re never put on a pedestal and the film doesn’t just move from iconic moment to iconic moment. There are a couple of key events in Sex Pistols history here, but they’re generally only used as a backdrop for the central relationship. Cox isn’t interested in telling the story of the band as this was already public knowledge, particularly as the film was released not long after the fact, which is a risky move in itself.
Instead of simply charting history then, the film seems more concerned with letting the audience witness the inevitable downfall of two damaged individuals who seem to need to be together, even if they’re both killing each other. It could be seen as the traditional ‘fall from grace’ story, but the pair seem pretty messed up to start with, so it seems more ‘bad to worse’. That said, they do both seem much happier at the start of the film, as Sid enjoys fame and the wild lifestyle that comes with it and Nancy enjoys being involved. With Cox’s unflinching viewpoint, never shying away from the grime, vomit, blood and snot, it’s not a pleasant experience though. It’s a tough watch, particularly towards the end.
There are moments of beauty though. Cox and his cinematographer, the great Roger Deakins, shoot the filth with strangely attractive flare. There’s a documentary-like edge to some scenes, particularly the gigs, but there are also some stylistic flourishes here and there, such as a glorious shot where rubbish falls from the skies in slow motion whilst the couple kiss by a skip. Another perfectly symbolic scene sees Sid and Nancy gaze with glazed-over disinterest as their hotel room burns around them.
The real lynchpin of the film though, which keeps you watching despite the misery on screen, is Gary Oldman’s performance. He perfectly captures Sid’s wild spirit, but also his vulnerability. I wish I could be as positive about Chloe Webb as Nancy though. She lets the film down a bit for me. I haven’t seen any footage of the real Nancy Spungen, so I can’t comment on how accurate her portrayal is, but I found her grating – her delivery felt forced and her expressions too frequently gurned out. Perhaps this is intentional and accounts I’ve read on writing this review suggest that, in reality, Nancy was an unlikeable and larger than life character, but Webb’s performance didn’t seem as nuanced or powerful as Oldman’s, by a long shot.
So, although I felt it was one of the strongest music biopics I’ve seen in terms of presentation, I was ultimately a little let down, largely due to Webb’s performance. The relentlessly downbeat tone didn’t help either, although I found the whole thing morbidly fascinating. Oldman’s performance, on top of Cox’s wonderful recreation of the punk sensibility through his filmmaking, help this feel like a fitting eulogy to the doomed couple.
Sid & Nancy is being re-released in selected cinemas on 5th August and will then be released on 29th August on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK through Studiocanal. I watched the DVD version which looks and sounds great. The music comes through powerfully in particular.
For special features, there are a handful of interviews, a fairly lengthy one with with Director Alex Cox, one with cinematographer Roger Deakins and one with Don Letts (Director, DJ and presenter of ‘Punk on Film’ at the BFI: Southbank). They’re all very good. Cox reveals some interesting tidbits about production, including the fact that before he got on board, the film was going to star Rupert Everett and Madonna. When he took it on, his two choices for Sid were Oldman or Daniel Day Lewis. Another fun fact is that Glen Matlock (who was originally the Sex Pistols’ bass player) actually played Sid’s bass parts in the film. Deakins’ interview is also fascinating as he fondly remembers the on-the-fly nature of the shoot. I didn’t realise he got started as a documentary cinematographer either. I found that surprising given how cinematic his style is. The Letts interview is focussed on the punk scene, its links to reggae and the history of the Sex Pistols. This is a great listen for those not clued up on the era.