Sid and Nancy, 1986.
Directed by Alex Cox.
Starring Gary Oldman, Chloe Webb, David Hayman, Debby Bishop, Andrew Schofield, Courtney Love, Perry Benson and Tony London.
The film follows the turbulent relationship between Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb), following their love affair from their first encounters on the London Punk scene to Spungen’s death at her boyfriend’s hands in a seedy New York hotel.
Sid and Nancy was never a film about music. Maybe that was the point; the music was always the least interesting thing about the Sex Pistols. Nevermind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols – although now iconic – is still a mess. Instruments are played with little care, and what once stood as being anti-establishment now finds itself plastered across notebooks, piss-poor memorabilia and knock-off t-shirts sold in Camden Market. Even Johnny Rotten/Johnny Lydon, the stick thin Artful Dodger-alike front-man found himself staring up at capitalism as he sold butter. (Sidenote: my Bar Mitzvah invitation was a revision of the artwork – shocked the very bricks of the synagogue). Yet Sid and Nancy, now celebrating its 30th anniversary with a lush re-release, seemed to care not for the music, but for the fundamentally bitter, bilious nature of the Sex Pistols, in particular the emotional complexity of baby-faced bassist Sid Vicious.
Gary Oldman – spitting and screaming his way through the film – stars as Sid Vicious, who finds himself in an ever spiraling relationship with Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb) following the split of the Sex Pistols. Director Alex Cox delicately treads the line between Vicious as someone vehemently nasty and as someone who was fundamentally a figure defined by tragedy. Yet as with many a protagonist-if protagonist is the correct word-where sympathy is tough to pinpoint, he struggles to find calm or redemption amidst the chaos and anarchy.
And chaos and anarchy reign supreme. Rare moments of silence are broken by shrill screams and the clatter of bodies, as if Cox chose to translate the total anarchy of punk to the cinema screen. It’s a bitter, visceral and incredibly energetic affair. Yet in playing itself so bipolar, it becomes increasingly difficult for those rare moments to hit when they should be hitting hard. Even as Nancy dies, the film maintains itself at such a speed that her death comes off as unremarkable. Amidst the drug-abuse and chaos, death seems to always come second.
Away from Oldman, performances seem to come straight out of a drama school workshop. From the offset, Chloe Webb plays Nancy as a toddler in the midst of the world’s worst tantrum while Andrew Schofield seems to play Johnny Rotten totally blind. There is a feeling however that all this is deliberate. Like the very best of punk, it’s ramshackle and ugly, an assault on every possible sense.
Where the film succeeds most is in its study of a toxic, ever-decaying relationship. There’s genuine belief that Sid and Nancy, however vile, are in desperate need of one another. Once Nancy dies however, the film struggles to maintain control, ultimately resulting in an ending, which although poetic and strangely visceral, seems a slight cop out. Even Sid’s departure from the band is played as if a footnote to the whole affair. Cox clearly cares not for the Sex Pistols, or for the internal relationships of the band, but Vicious as otherworldly, a strange, broken figure.
It’s strange, Sid and Nancy, even thirty years after its release seems to breathe life. It’s a total mess, it’s too loud, it’s brash, it comes off as your drunk friend at their very worst, yet it’s vital cinema. A re-release seems futile; it always will work better on that VHS you’ve owned since you were studying way back in the 90s.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
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