Sid and Nancy (1986)
April 17, 2018 5:15 PM - Subscribe

The relationship between Sid Vicious, bassist for British punk group The Sex Pistols, and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen is portrayed.

AV Club: Released in 1986 amid a lot of reflection on the first decade of punk, Sid & Nancy is partly a romanticized reiteration of the Vicious and Spungen legend, partly an attempt to poke holes in the doomy romanticism surrounding the couple. Director and co-writer Alex Cox doesn’t skimp on showing the track marks, spoiled food, and fetid rooms of junkie life, or on the fundamental unpleasantness of its protagonists, particularly Spungen, played by Chloe Webb as a shrill, overgrown brat with nobody’s best interests at heart. But Cox can only help himself up to a point. In the film’s signature image, Webb and co-star Gary Oldman kiss in a New York alley, becoming passionate silhouettes against a graffiti-covered Dumpster as garbage falls around them in slow motion. It doesn’t matter if the world falls apart as long as they have each other.

Cox can’t sustain those contradictory attitudes for the length of the film, which wants to be a cautionary tale and immortalize its misfit heroes by sending them up to heaven in a magical taxi. But for a while, the tension powers the film. And when it doesn’t, the lead performances by Oldman and Webb pick up the slack. Webb captures the vulnerability—and possible madness—beneath Spungen’s shrill exterior, while Oldman, in his breakout performance, brings to the surface the insecurity of his character, a kid who uses punk bluster to hide just how lost and confused he’s gotten, and how happy he is to find anything that gives him direction. True, that’s a woman hell-bent on her own destruction no matter who she takes with her and a heroin habit that gives his days structure, but at least it’s something.

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, in its first half, offers an immersive plunge into the punk lifestyle, capturing with wit and verve its anti-authoritarian sneer and DIY ethos, before then slowly circling 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, Drugstore Cowboy, did much to insinuate into the pop-culture zeitgeist. Although Cox has suggested that his 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.

NYTimes: Like Mr. Oldman's Sid, who comes through as furious but terminally vague, and Miss Webb's Nancy, who whines and squawks like a dying chicken, the film has a way of staggering uncertainly from one point to another. What it does best is to generate odd, unexpected images that epitomize the characters' affectlessness and rage; the glimpse of Nancy lying bleeding while Sid watches cartoons on television is only one of Mr. Cox's punk epiphanies, and the film's closing fantasy is indeed haunting. What is weakest, though, is the evocation of the punk ethos. These were doomed characters who lived entirely for the moment, and they can't easily be resurrected.

WaPo: "Sid and Nancy" creates character through setting, through the painstaking accumulation of physical details: the legend "NO FEELINGS" scrawled in lipstick on a mirror that reflects Sid and Nancy making love, or a woman dandling an infant sporting a pint-size, green-dyed Mohawk hairdo, or the toy pistols Sid and Nancy play with. The movie's reality is thingy, grounded in paraphernalia.

But while the attention to surface reality is true to the characters and to punk rock in general, it underlines what's superficial about the movie itself. In approaching punk, Cox has made a punk movie -- alive with anarchy, and with the "how far can we go?" humor of anarchy, but dead inside. Punk rejected the idea of a moral center, of social or artistic context, of psychological motivation, but art requires all those things -- in short, a sense that there's a living, breathing filmmaker behind the film. In a metaphysical sense, the movie never ventures outside the hotel rooms where Sid and Nancy seem to spend all their time.

Cox's approach paints the movie's stars into a corner, and the upshot is a matched set of remarkable impersonations, but not performances. Oldman captures Vicious' giddy daze and loose-limbed recklessness -- he's like a marionette with cut strings -- just as Webb finds, with her voice, the harsh singsong of naked emotional need. But both play that same note till the end, the only notes Sid and Nancy ever played. Once a junkie, always a junkie.

Roger Ebert: "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.

The Guardian: The real Johnny Rotten – now known as John Lydon – is not a fan of the film. "I still get asked questions about it", he wrote in his 1994 autobiography. "I have to explain that it's all wrong. It was all someone else's fucking fantasy, some Oxford graduate who missed the punk rock era. The bastard." There is plenty to quibble with in the movie's depiction of the punk scene, but its take on Vicious and Spungen's relationship is compelling. Director Alex Cox (who read law at Worcester College, Oxford) avoids excessive romanticisation, and yet, amid all the filth, vomit, blood, bruised veins, shouting, blackouts and violence, captures authentically the fractious but intimate tone of their interaction.


Is Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy the finest British film of the 1980s?

Reflecting on 30 years of Sid & Nancy with Alex Cox

Director Alex Cox Talks Making Sid & Nancy, 30 Years On
posted by MoonOrb (8 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Can you imagine a better Hello World! than what Gary Oldman gets to do with this film? Amazing.
posted by valkane at 6:34 PM on April 17, 2018

Can you imagine a better Hello World! than what Gary Oldman gets to do with this film?

If it hadn't been this, it would have been Oldman's next film, Prick Up Your Ears, about the playwright Joe Orton and his lover/murderer Kenneth Halliwell (played by Alfred Molina). Watch those two back-to-back and you might have difficulty believing that that actor is the same guy who had his turns in the Harry Potter and Batman franchises.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:42 AM on April 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

There was a girl in my high school who did the FUNNIEST Nancy impression. Whenever there was a big crowd of kids I'd listen for Nancy yelling at Sid about the drugs because she always busted it out in crowds. This was like 2001 and I have to imagine there were only a handful of us in school who knew what she was referring to but for those of us whod seen the movie it was hysterical.

The "My Way" in this movie is the canonical version of the song.
posted by potrzebie at 11:00 AM on April 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

I only recently discovered that the "Never trust a junkie!" sample that kicks off Ministry's "Just One Fix" is from this, so now I guess I need to see it?
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:06 AM on April 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

Oh how I wanted to have the swagger that Gary Oldman has at the end of the movie as he's walking across some kind of urban blight with his back to the camera (if my memory serves, I haven't seen this movie in probably 25 years).
posted by conifer at 12:14 PM on April 18, 2018

Here's Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt doing their amazing recreation of an iconic scene from Sid and Nancy, with Deschanel as Sid and Gordon-Levitt as Nancy. While their performances are pitch-perfect, I have kind of mixed feelings about it. It turns into a thing where they're arguing about 500 Days of Summer and... I don't know, it kind of feels like it's trivializing Spungen's death. Yes, Sid and Nancy was a movie, but this was a depiction of a real person bleeding out from a stab wound. It seems like an icky moment to turn into a plug for your romantic comedy quirkfest. The clip's definitely worth seeing though, especially for Gordon-Levitt's take on Chloe Webb.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 2:59 PM on April 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

When we were in high school, we used to yell "Sid? Sid? Nancy?"at each other in bad English accents. Yet, weirdly, I have no memory of actually seeing this film.

that actor is the same guy who had his turns in the Harry Potter

I don't know, I think Oldman is quite believable as a Sirius who is a survivor from an effed-up era.

I wish his politics weren't quite so loathsome, as he's handed in some fine performances, but now when I see him, all I can think is "'We're all fucking hypocrites. The policeman who arrested [Mel Gibson] has never used the word ‘n****r’ or ‘that f***ing Jew’?'"
posted by praemunire at 11:46 AM on April 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

My dad looks like Gary Oldman, and my wife is a big fan of Oldman*. I tom her to this last year and she was depressed through the weekend.

I've only seen this a few times, but the climax murder scene is horribly believable. The Sid scenes are pretty close to the Swindle era of the sex pistols, where they were pretty much over, but having been a kid when the movie came out and seeing it as a pushing middle age adult, the tragedy really stands out, it's not some punk stars a decade older
than me, but kids who never had a chance.

* when she first met him, she said "are you gonna look like him when you get old! awesome!". Also my dad has no fucking idea who Gary Oldman is.
posted by lkc at 8:53 PM on April 21, 2018

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