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.
* 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: