Tag Archives: Alex Cox

Sid and Nancy

Sid and Nancy
Sid and Nancy

Format: Cinema

Release date: 5 August 2016

BR/DVD release date: 29 August 2016

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: Alex Cox

Writers: Alex Cox, Abbe Wool

Cast: Gary Oldman, Andrew Schofield, Chloe Webb, David Hayman

UK 1986

112 mins

Alex Cox’s retelling of the Sex Pistols bassist’s doomed junkie romance with an American groupie still packs a punch.

Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy is 30 years old and looking pretty damn fly for its age, well turned out in vintage bondage trousers and handsome Roger Deakins cinematography. Age changes a film, and in this case the years have been kind. It tells the true tale, you must surely know, of the utterly ill-starred relationship between Sid Vicious, the under-rehearsed bassist in the second line-up of The Sex Pistols, and Nancy Spungen, an American groupie/prostitute. It is a romance written in gob and heroin, mostly heroin, through which the couple ‘meet cute’, after a fashion, and through which they will both spiral, over a couple of years, towards a wretched murder/overdose in New York 79.

Being punkily inclined as a teenager, a decade or so after the movement’s heyday, I bloody loved Sid and Nancy, partly because it was one of the few and far examples of what could be termed punk cinema that could be found in the local video outlet, together with Cox’s Repo Man and the early works of Penelope Spheeris. I wore out my VHS copy with over-use whilst at the same time being fully aware that many lairy old ex-punks ‘who were there at the time’ had a bit of a downer on the film for its many transgressions,* and they had a point. It is, to be sure, a travesty of history, if you care about that sort of thing. The actual events are compressed, blended, shaken and stirred to fit a clear narrative arc. Anachronisms abound, and wrong notes are struck. But to criticise the film on grounds of accuracy seems wrong-headed. Cox sets out his stall early on: he puts ghosts in the Chelsea Hotel’s corridors, and fills London’s streets with St Trinian’s-style hockey-wielding little thugs. He has mounted cavalry trot past, drapes the punks in vintage Vivienne Westwood and covers the walls in Jamie Reid art and spray can graffiti. This, it is clear, is not aiming for realism. This, at least in its London scenes, is a ‘print the legend’ portrait. He fills his frame with background artistes and makes sure they have stuff to do, unleashing a three-ring circus of anti-social activity. He lets his set dressers and costume designers have a field day, and always one to prefer the idiosyncratic to the functional, he allows his actors to go broad to the point of caricature, a risky strategy that (as with Repo Man) continually draws memorable performances from even minor characters. So we have David Hayman delivering a winningly saturnine Malcolm McLaren, the cherishable Kathy Burke stealing scenes in Clockwork Orange get-up, and Debbie Bishop doing great work as Pistols secretary Phoebe, amongst a cavalcade of sharp little turns.

The film belongs to Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb, though. this was Oldman’s first man-sized role ( he was in Mike Leigh’s Meantime in 84, but not much else of note), and he grabs it with both hands. His Sid is an endlessly watchable blend of swagger and style and clumsy naivety, a likeable fool who’s won the lottery and landed his dream gig without having to do any heavy lifting. He plays up to the sneering, v-flicking, violent role the tabloids have created for him, but deflates the image with moments of sweet politeness and vulnerability – witness him begging Nancy to help him with the washing-up ’round his mum’s flat dressed in leopard print underpants and socks. He’s essentially a big, clueless kid who’s been given all the toys but doesn’t understand the game, and watching his descent to the snot-bubbling wreck on the NY subway is heart-breaking. Webb has the harder task of imbuing ‘nauseating’ Nancy with any qualities that would make her worth going to hell for, and does a fine job. Her Nancy is, for sure, an appalling human being, a leech whose every utterance is a whine or a scream or a shrieked insult when she hasn’t gotten her way, but she’s also possessed of a brash, ballsy energy and a lopsided devotion. Her horrified realisation that, dressed in Sid’s mum’s floaty scarves, she ‘looks like Stevie Nicks!’ is hilarious. Her quiet admission that the reason the couple have been thrown out of her grand-parents’ house early on, in a disastrous visit home to her folks, is simply that ‘they know me’ a quietly unnerving moment of self-awareness.

Together they form a tight little bond, immune to the truth, where he is a star for the ages and she is his soulmate and manager. This is emphasised by the sequences that punctuate the piece like dream interludes: slow-motion scenes where all noise drops away apart from the pretty, yearning music composed for the film by Pray For Rain and The Pogues, The first shows the couple walking in blissful drunken serenity away from the Pistols Jubilee boat party as all around them are brutally collared by the cops; a later one has them snogging in a New York alleyway as trash rains down around them. Both emphasise the bubble that the young lovers have built around them. In many ways it’s a film of two halves, taking a definite turn when we get to New York and the Chelsea hotel. The colourful burlesque drops away, the frames become less and less crowded, grim reality seeps in, until we’re left with two helpless people in a shrinking room. Junkie etiquette takes hold, a life of endless empty promises and all conquering need, where the world shrivels and the detritus accumulates.**

Cox and co-writer Abbe Wool’s most egregious sins against the facts of the case have all been in the service of making the film a love story, and I can see how its fanciful ‘taxi to heaven’ confabulations would seem like so much appalling bullshit to anybody involved with the actual squalor of gutter-level smack addiction. Within the film, all the Christiane F stuff sits a little uneasily with the earlier Carry On cartoonery. Other duff notes are the scenes with ‘Rockhead’, a thinly veiled and thinly conceived Iggy-esque*** creation inserted into the Soho sections of the story, whose appearances and purpose are a little baffling. And it has to be said that Andrew Schofield just doesn’t land Johnny Rotten, coming across decidedly more clownish Captain Sensible than malevolent Mr Lydon, and flatly underselling his ‘ever had the feeling you’ve been cheated’ moment.

All told, viewed today it’s an inventive and energetic raggedy thing, made with a wide screen chutzpah rare in British film, and held together by a committed charismatic lead couple. The music sounds fine, the photography is superb, it’s generous and inclusive and wide-eyed, and like most of the director’s work, feels just a little out of control. I wish Alex Cox had a longer purple patch, I lost track of his work after Highway Patrolman, but he made some damn cinema when he could raise the money. The Moviedrome seasons he curated and presented for BBC2 were a cinema education for a generation. Give the man some appreciation.

Mark Stafford

* The most obvious being that yer actual punk rockers of a certain vintage will never believe that Sid actually killed Nancy, much has been written, and at least one full-length documentary (Alan G Parker’s Who Killed Nancy, 2009) made, on the case for the defence, if you will.

** It’s jarring when Courtney Love turns up in a small role as a friend of Nancy’s later in the film, bringing to mind parallels with another smack-addled rock’n’roll horror show.

*** The real James Osterberg pops up later as a prospective Chelsea guest.

Watch the trailer:

Repo Man

Repo Man

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 20 February 2012

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Alex Cox

Writer: Alex Cox

Cast: Harry Dean Stanton, Emilio Estevez, Tracey Walter, Miguel Sandoval, Fox Harris, Del Zamora

USA 1984

92 mins

There is a great joie de vivre in Repo Man (1984), the first feature made by film fan Alex Cox. But what followed was a convoluted story of official and unofficial sequels and spin-offs marked by discord and recriminations.

Unlike other ‘classics’ of the 1980s, Repo Man has aged well. Cox disingenuously lays much of the credit for this to cinematographer Robby Müller’s involvement, but the intriguing mix of elements - the punk soundtrack, Emilio Estevez’s brash performance juxtaposed with Harry Dean Stanton’s as his laconic elder mentor, Fox Harris’s mad scientist with an eye-patch and a radioactive car, the anonymous blue and white packaging labels of food and drink and so on - all add up to a unique experience that announced the arrival of an important new filmmaker.

Yet, Alex Cox never managed to sustain the reputation he gained with Repo Man: while its immediate follow-up, Sid and Nancy (1986), was relatively successful, subsequent films alienated and bewildered audiences. The 1987 double bill of Straight to Hell, with its inexperienced all-musician cast, and the America-baiting Walker sealed his fate as a ‘cult’ director. But although his budgets dwindled further and further, Cox has never made an uninteresting film.

Read the interview with Alex Cox.

The sequel to Repo Man, Repo Chick (2009), was released on the 25th anniversary of the original film and reunited half a dozen members of the supporting cast, including Cox regular Miguel Sandoval, with the director, who also cameos in both films. The breezy, if overlong, movie aptly takes a pot shot at reality TV, but replacing Estevez with a ‘valley girl’ and her entourage creates a less interesting dynamic than the one between Otto and his cohort. The film’s central MacGuffin - banks need to repossess everything in America from trains to ocean liners with the help of the new Repo team - has a certain absurd resonance in the current economic climate.

The CGI backdrops of Repo Chick were clearly inspired by Ralph Steadman’s ink-splattered hallucinogenic style, but the film’s micro-budget means its innovations, including shooting actors in front of a green screen then filled with unrealistic landscapes from cartoon to toy town, limited its audience. Steadman’s influence on Cox is also visible in the booklet included in the new Blu-ray, which reproduces the original four-page comic that was the first incarnation of Repo Man, expanded with the addition of further cartoon drawings by Cox, reminiscent of the style of the gonzo cartoonist.

In between the two Repo films, Cox wrote another instalment, Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday, which he couldn’t film. Estevez’s character Otto is renamed Waldo, so he could stay incognito on his return from outer space (and probably also to keep lawyers happy if a different studio to Universal had made it). Waldo is even lighter on plot than Repo Man: the title character roams through an even more polluted LA, going from one haphazard set-piece to another. If Waldo had been made in the late 90s as intended, it could have been part of the trend for ‘yuppie in peril’ films that briefly flourished after Cox’s first feature, including Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) and John Landis’s Into the Night (1985).

Although the cast and crew of the original film were interested, Cox was unable to raise the money and so the script might have just remained typed words on a page, if the director hadn’t decided to allow others to have a crack at adapting it. A team of fledgling American filmmakers, helmed by producer-director Stuart Kincaid, showed an interest and set about filming it to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Repo Man. Unfortunately, there was some disagreement between Cox and them. When I spoke to Cox, he said they shot only a small amount, and his preference is clearly for people to experience Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday as the graphic novel that was released in 2008. But in a feature-length documentary on the matter, A Texas Tale of Treason (2006), the filmmakers claim they finished shooting the film in Texas in 2004, and that Cox told them to shut down production just as they were getting to post-production. With only a small amount of Waldo footage accessible online either in trailer form or as part of the documentary, it’s impossible to know how much Kincaid actually shot. If he did finish the film as Texas Tale attests, one hopes that he and Cox can eventually put aside their differences and let the movie see the light of day as the existing footage isn’t bad at all and I, for one, would be curious to see more.

Universal Studios retained the right to make a sequel to Repo Man, which they eventually exercised by releasing the similar sounding but unrelated Repo Men (2010) three years after it had originally been shot, muddying the waters when Cox was trying to get Repo Chick released. Understandably, Cox doesn’t have anything nice to say about Repo Men in his introduction to the new Repo Man Blu-ray, although the film’s actually quite good. It is best described as a cross between Blade Runner and Brazil as it was inspired by both Philip K. Dick and a Monty Python sketch about organ-legging (which appears on a TV in the film). Jude Law plays a Repo Man in a dystopian future, repossessing mechanical body parts from owners who need them to survive, with gristly consequences, and in some respects this is actually a better film than Cox’s own bona fide sequel.

Alex Cox talks of the unrealised Repo Man comic as ‘what might have been’ (he gave up after four pages because it was too much work – read the interview for more details) and an investigation into the sequels - finished, unfinished and adapted - makes that statement all the more poignant. With Repo Man available as a Blu-ray, it’s certainly time to re-appreciate the original film for its many great qualities and enjoy that at least, in the best home format it’s ever been.

Alex Fitch

Note on the Blu-ray extras:

The Repo Man Blu-ray includes excellent additional features: aside from the original comic there is also an amusing censored TV edit, with the immortal expletive ‘Melon Farmer’ replacing a more familiar expression with the same initials and number of syllables - the TV edit is almost as worthy as the ruder original because of the absurdity of the ridiculous language.