Sid Vicious, the second bass player for the Sex Pistols, and Nancy Spungen, his American girlfriend, might have become punk icons even if Spungen hadn’t died of a stab wound in the couple’s room in the Hotel Chelsea, her death followed a few months later by Vicious’ own heroin overdose and death. Their look and attitude defined the British wing of punk’s first wave, all sneers and whatta-ya-got rebellion that didn’t care if the whole world got reduced to cinders, since it wasn’t worth saving anyway. Death ensured their status as icons: While the rest of the punks grew old, got experimental, sold out, settled into ruts, pandered to the nostalgia-prone, or just faded away, Vicious and Spungen got to stay young and snotty forever.
Released in 1986 amid a lot of reflection on the first decade of punk, Sid & Nancy is partly a romanticized reiteration of the Vicious and Spungen legend, partly an attempt to poke holes in the doomy romanticism surrounding the couple. Director and co-writer Alex Cox doesn’t skimp on showing the track marks, spoiled food, and fetid rooms of junkie life, or on the fundamental unpleasantness of its protagonists, particularly Spungen, played by Chloe Webb as a shrill, overgrown brat with nobody’s best interests at heart. But Cox can only help himself up to a point. In the film’s signature image, Webb and co-star Gary Oldman kiss in a New York alley, becoming passionate silhouettes against a graffiti-covered Dumpster as garbage falls around them in slow motion. It doesn’t matter if the world falls apart as long as they have each other.
Cox can’t sustain those contradictory attitudes for the length of the film, which wants to be a cautionary tale and immortalize its misfit heroes by sending them up to heaven in a magical taxi. But for a while, the tension powers the film. And when it doesn’t, the lead performances by Oldman and Webb pick up the slack. Webb captures the vulnerability—and possible madness—beneath Spungen’s shrill exterior, while Oldman, in his breakout performance, brings to the surface the insecurity of his character, a kid who uses punk bluster to hide just how lost and confused he’s gotten, and how happy he is to find anything that gives him direction. True, that’s a woman hell-bent on her own destruction no matter who she takes with her and a heroin habit that gives his days structure, but at least it’s something.
This new Blu-ray edition of Sid & Nancy looks great, nicely capturing the way Roger Deakins’ occasionally dreamlike photography meshes with Cox’s tendency to throw in surreal touches, particularly in the film’s American-based second half, when Sid and Nancy’s drug habit starts to overwhelm their sense of what’s real and what’s not. Day becomes night in an instant and their lives start to bleed into the shows they watch on the television. But it’s otherwise inferior to the out-of-print Criterion DVD, which featured a rich, sometimes skeptical commentary from Cox, co-writer Abbe Wool, critic Greil Marcus, and others. Marcus spent much of his time noting the liberties taken in compacting the complexities of the London punk scene into a movie-friendly background element. That should be evident to anyone who knows a bit of punk history—poor John Lydon suffers the worst, depicted by Andrew Schofield as a thickheaded lunk with none of the real Lydon’s wicked wit—but by film’s end, punk becomes as secondary to the story as it does to the lives of the lovers it turned into icons, two people who found a bit of tenderness in the midst of chaos and paid for it with their lives, even though they didn’t have to.
Key features: A trailer and a pair of cookie-cutter talking-head docs that don’t shed much light on the film.