[13 January 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
So what if it’s not 100% accurate. All truth aside, it ‘feels’ right. Former band members and those directly involved in the scene have said their peace, with documentaries declaring the ‘real’ version of what actually happened. Of course, since we are dealing with personal perspective recalled in hindsight, it’s always going to come across as kindler, gentler. Apparently, director Alex Cox saw the spectacular rise and disastrous fall of John Simon Ritchie (aka, the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious) and thought it would make a good movie. He then tied the story to the equally compelling tale of groupie Nancy Spungen and her psychotic, self-destructive ways. The result would become an early ‘80s landmark, a movie loved by a considered cult who cared nothing for facts and merely wanted a myth to go along with their favorite musician. Thus, the brilliant Sid & Nancy was born.
We meet Vicious (a stunning turn by Gary Oldman) as he is being arrested for Spungen’s (Chloe Webb) murder. Found with a single stab wound to the abdomen, she apparently bled to death on the floor of their Chelsea Hotel bathroom. Under police interrogation, Vicious recounts first meeting his future girlfriend at the home of a mutual acquaintance. From there, we learn of his place in the Sex Pistols, his friendship with lead singer Johnny Rotten (Andrew Schofield) and constant clashes with band manager Malcolm McLaren (David Hayman). After a disastrous US tour, the group breaks up, sending Vicious further into a spiral of drug dependence and addiction. Spungen, naturally, tags along for the redolent ride. Eventually, they find themselves holed up in the Chelsea and desperate. As part of a murder/suicide pact, or the results of a strung out night of fighting, Spungen is found dead. Vicious, charged with her death, ODs a few months later.
From the plot description, one would think that Sid & Nancy was a dire, depressing experience, and for the most part, it is. We watch as promise is pissed away by petty squabbling and bad management. We see a talented icon dissolve into a pool of heroin and hopelessness. We suffer the banshee cry of a clearly unhinged young woman who only wants to sample the limelight shining on those who truly (?) deserve it, and we get a glimpse at the mid-‘70s punk scene as it sprawled across London before attempting to trap America. All the while, Cox circles the action like a hawk, hoping to capture moments of emotional truth within the truncated and frequently fictional journey. Indeed, there are time, as in the often harrowing Chelsea Hotel sequences, where the director’s handheld designs play as another participant in the mix. As the silent onlooker, we watch as a once happy couple uses addiction and poverty to play a form of ridiculous Russian Roulette with their reality. It’s not a question of if someone will die, but who…and when.
Before that, Cox does his best to showcase what made the Pistols so special. While many have complained about Schofield’s portrayal of on/off stage pal Rotten, he is actually very good at capturing the angry, anarchic spirit of the singer. Certainly, the artist currently known as John Lydon was a more complicated and critical human being (anyone whose read his terrific autobiography - Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs -can tell you), but as with most of this movie, Schofield’s work just feels right. Similarly, other ancillary figures found here - Rock Head, wannabe club owner Wally, McLaren’s assistant Phoebe - have the same ‘almost real’ onscreen sentiment. About the only attempted recreation comes with X-Ray Spex, who open up a pre-gig conversation with their seminal “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!”
Yet the real heart and soul of Sid & Nancy remain the two main stars and their capable guide. For his part, Oldman owns the role of Vicious. There is never a wrong move - not when taking the stage to struggle on the bass, not when singing the sensational Sid version of “My Way” (with the actor’s actual voice), not the skinny refugee victimization of his time on smack…nothing. It’s as if Cox, considering the concept of a movie on the Sex Pistols, willed Oldman into being. Within this flashy star making turn is a lot of humanity, something that really can’t be said for Ms. Webb’s work. Indeed, Spungen is portrayed as the villain throughout Sid & Nancy. Her whining and wailing, counterbalanced by Vicious’ seemingly infinite tolerance, would take its toll on anyone.
Cox clearly understands this and tries to find ways to soften her stridence. Sometimes, it works (Spungen adopts a kitten, she complains about while easily excusing her family’s attitude toward her). In other instances, the character is a tarty tagalong groupie from Hell, a hopeless source of suffering for all she comes in contact with. According to reports, including a terrifying tell-all book by her own mother, she was a lot, lot worse. So Cox actually pulls back a bit, showing her as a starf*cker, but also as a deluded victim of her own incontrovertible vices. As he paints his portrait, he shades and suggests. We aren’t supposed to find Sid or Nancy romantic, just a pair of problematic people in a world unready to embrace them.
Indeed, the biggest epiphany one gets from this remarkable film is how much the fame game has changed in thirty years. Back in the ‘70s, the Sex Pistols were a scandal. Today, they couldn’t hold Marilyn Manson’s soiled skin suit. During their celebrated rise, the band and its backers were seen as solid outsiders. Today, they’re just a part of a piecemeal pop culture. Most importantly, addled junkies like Vicious and Spungen are no longer spit on like pariahs within a specific social party. Instead, they would be working their way through various rehabs and extolling their efforts for all of reality TV to see (what would Dr. Drew pay to have this couple on his VH-1 dole?). For all its fictional turns and tantalizing half-truths, one thing remains certain: Sid & Nancy is a great film. It may not get its facts right, but its essence is definitely in the right place.