All right, so it’s not the most accurate depiction of the rise and fall of the seminal punk band The Sex Pistols ever committed to film. Granted, both the brutal documentary The Filth and the Fury and the group’s own aborted big screen effort The Great Rock and Roll Swindle do a much better job of fleshing out the dynamic between drummer Paul Cook, guitarist Steve Jones, bassists Glen Matlock and Sid Vicious, and singer John “Rotten” Lydon than this mostly fictional biopic. Still, in an era inundated with mindless hair metal, when the DIY spirit of the ‘70s seemed a million greedy greenbacks away, rebel filmmaker Alex Cox parlayed his Repo Man cache into a chance at recreating Britain’s infamous bad boys and their import to the era. Part love story, part affectionate look at how punk purged an industry of its dinosaur daftness, Cox traded truth for social symbolism and created a three chord masterwork.
Instrumental in the film’s stunning success are the performances. Yes, this is the movie that introduced Gary Oldman to most of the world, the former UK TV fixture finally getting a chance to strut his amazing acting stuff across the Cineplex for all to see. His version of the stoic, slightly dim Sid Vicious is all party boy put-ons and little child terrors. Treating the moments both on and off stage as situations unfairly complicated by people, drugs, obligations and incompetence, Oldman locates the individual behind the icon, and watching him shift between the two is one of Sid and Nancy‘s major delights.
Similarly, Chloe Webb captures the demented desperation of the nauseating Nancy Spungen in brash, bitchy spades. Anyone familiar with this groupie’s terrifying true story will instantly see how Webb has softened, perhaps even salvaged the smack addicted slag. Behind all the tirades and temper tantrums, the sloppy sex and starf*cking facets, is a little girl that just wanted to be Barbie. Too bad about the bruises.
But there are other actors in this film, unsung heroes whose supporting work really anchors this occasionally out of control experience. Primary among the brilliant ancillary champions is Andrew Schofield, perfectly channeling Johnny Rotten’s rejection of all things phony and ‘boring’. Even his singing captures the frontman’s confrontational commentary style in ways that defy mere dramatics. The fact that everyone here, from Schofield to Oldman handled their own onstage vocal chores makes the tricky transformations that much more powerful.
Perhaps the most potent – and problematic - portrayal though is that of David Hayman as the master manipulator Malcolm McLaren. Having long lived off the reputation that he more or less manufactured the Sex Pistols like a mean-spirited, malfeasant Monkees (he even had the band cover the Pre-Fab Four’s “I’m Not Your Stepping Stone”), most historians now consider ‘Malcey Walkey’ a jaundiced joke, a sinister and shrewd businessman who used and abused a group of disgruntled youths to line his pockets. In Hayman’s hands, such huckster slickness is more or less absent. In its place is a hard working Svengali who balances propaganda with personality to guide his boys along the profits and pitfalls of the UK music scene. For many, it’s the most artificial note in a movie made up of rumors, legends, myths and innuendo.
Even with all the amazing music and pristine performances, this is still Cox’s film, and his visual style and narrative drive is nothing short of astounding. There are sequences here that rival the best that cinema has to offer in their artistry and effectiveness. For instance, after the band has broken up and Sid is stationed in Paris, trying to jumpstart a solo career, McLaren gets the stunning idea of having the tone deaf talent warble the Frank Sinatra standard “My Way”. Recreating the controversial film clip for the song (once only visible via the SNL exploitation oddity Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video), we see Oldman recreate the performance, move for move.
But there’s a single shot, a moment right before Vicious pulls out a gun and pretend assassinates the audience, where Cox’s captures everything Sid and Nancy stands for. Shot at an angle looking downward, the actor framed perfectly among the brightly lit stage, Oldman’s gawking glance, filled with both contempt and confusion, staggers us with its heartbreaking humanness. It’s as if, buried inside this talent free emblem of Britain’s desperate decline, is a real young man who simply wants to be understood. Dazed by the faux adulation provided by the extras, Vicious breaks out his pistol and begins firing. It’s a major moment in the movie, Sid’s last real defense of himself. After this, heroin and the harrowing situation with Nancy will spiral out of control, leading to the controversial conclusion that still haunts his legacy…and this film.
For many, the death of Nancy Spungen was not unexpected. She was a walking nightmare, a cruel, callous woman who chewed up and spit out people with a studied, egotistical abandon. Many view her as the true manipulative force in Sid’s life, and Cox makes no bones about jumping on that blame bandwagon. Spungen is constantly shown pushing Sid closer and closer to self-destruction, egging him on with as many calculated comments and confusing controls as possible. By the time the movie makes its third act descent into the couple’s lamentable life in New York, the pair become a composite, a collective of track-marked arms, collapsing veins, and interpersonal inevitability. As portrayed here, Sid kills Nancy as part of an accidental action. Rendered emasculated by her constant nagging, their supposed suicide pact falling apart, our puzzled youth lunges at his lady, knife poised to satisfy her self-absorbed whine.
Defenders of Vicious have often pointed to this conclusion as the final nail in the Sex Pistols’ sad saga, a tale about talent tripped up by forces outside the greater group dynamic. Some have even suggested that Cox got it wrong, that the couple’s copious consumption of drugs had more to do with Nancy’s death (let’s just say it has something to do with sex, smack, drug dealers and a lack of cash) than some trumped up decision to die together. Such a sense of eventual destruction does seem to permeate every fiber of this film, from the first moment Sid sees Nancy to the infrequent times when the pair are happy and having fun. They just appear destined to be driven to the dark side by each other’s longings and lackings. In the end, it really doesn’t matter if Sid and Nancy accurately portrays the story of the Sex Pistols. After all, the movie’s not named after the band now, is it?