The true story of Sid Vicious, bassist for The Sex Pistols, and his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen.
It would be near impossible to really talk about this film without talking about the ending. As this is based on a true story, and what happened to Sid and Nancy is pretty common knowledge to anyone with even the slightest interest in the Sex Pistols, I don’t really feel like I need to throw a spoiler tag on this review. But, just in case you don’t know what this film is about, and you don’t want it spoiled, I’m letting you know now this review will be rather spoiler heavy.
The Romeo and Juliet of Punk
In the late 1970s, Sid Vicious had become an icon of punk rock. He was a loud, obnoxious, drug and alcohol addicted hooligan that broke things, cut himself, and had a total disdain and disregard for any type of authority. His girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, was a schizophrenic drug and alcohol addicted young woman with no aspirations to do anything other than to be with Sid. Together, the two of them courted each other in a dance of depravity and degradation, slowly sinking into a pit of despair. This is not a happy film by any means; it’s an honest look at drug addiction and how lack of control, lack of rules and respect, can send someone down a deadly path. But more than that, it’s a look at two broken people trying to find love, trying to figure out life, trying to just survive. This is an odyssey of punk rock, one that flits amazingly from anarchistic scenes of hectic concerts to the drug induced comas in hotel rooms illuminated by the flicker of televisions. This is a ballad of love and loss- an incredible vision from the director of “Repo Man”. And just like that film, this one is ‘always intense.’
My favorite part about this film is the writing. It starts the morning of October 12th, 1978 at the Hotel Chelsea in New York. It’s the morning after Sid murdered Nancy. Already from the beginning, we know that this film will end in sadness. From there we flash back to about the time when they met. Nancy was already a heroin addict by the time Sid got to know her; in fact, Sid sought out Nancy specifically for that reason. We witness the first time Sid and she do heroin together. Sid lies, saying it’s not his first time, and after they shoot up, we cut to Sid throwing up in the toilet. The two have sex, and then awake in a dreary state, somewhat hungover from the drugs and alcohol from the night before. That first night becomes a sort of bottled episode of what their lives will be like. As the film goes on, the two of them become more and more inseparable, and their addictions grow worse, their behavior more erratic, to the point where Sid’s band members make it a rule that girlfriends can’t come on tour. As the band tours, the separation between the two makes things only worse for Sid, and he falls deeper and deeper into depravity; constantly drinking, smoking meth, cutting his chest with razors, piercing himself with safety pins… by the time the tour is over, the band is ready to break up. From there Sid and Nany fall into a routine of shooting up, finding solo gigs for Sid, and sleeping off their drugs. It’s a cycle that continues over and over again, the two of them circling each other like a pair of wild animals, both of them knowing that this is going to end in their destruction.
There’s plenty of warning signs throughout that the path they’re on will only lead to their destruction; people repeatedly warn them to get clean, there are literal signs at the methadone clinic telling patrons not to throw their lives away, even Sid and Nancy themselves alternate in warning each other off the drugs, but no matter how many times they get off them, they always relapse. After the breakup of the Sex Pistols, the film takes a step away from looking at Sid’s music and focuses even more on the toxicity of their relationship. We’re constantly given foreshadowing hints of what to come; Sid continuously plays with knives- there’s even a scene when Nancy points out a knife she really likes. The first time the couple stays at the Hotel Chelsea, we shown the sign for a long while, implying significance. There are little artistic montages of trash raining down around the couple as they kiss in a filthy alleyway; all of these images and scenes seem to point towards the murder that’s to come. By the time the murder does finally come, we’ve been dreading it for quite some time. The way it was approached was both incredibly tasteful and disturbing.
From the way the film portrays the murder, I believe Alex Cox truly thinks that Sid loved Nancy, and that the stabbing was the result of a drug-frenzy. The stabbing seems almost accidental, and it’s brutal and hard to watch, but it’s only one stab. After the stabbing, instead of calling the police, the two crawl into bed and fall asleep for a while, until Nancy, now covered in blood, climbs out of bed and collapses in the bathroom. The murder wasn’t portrayed as intentional or overly violent; it seemed to be an accident that happened to two people who were so out of their minds on drugs that they didn’t know how to handle the situation. It’s depressing and disturbing, but it’s probably what really happened. The real Sid Vicious reportedly tried to slit his wrists with a broken light bulb ten days after Nancy’s murder, saying he ‘wanted to be with Nancy.’
This film wouldn’t be anything without its leads: Gary Oldman (“Darkest Hour”) and Chloe Webb (“Practical Magic”). The two have great onscreen chemistry in a way that other-er- romance movies (?) haven’t ever really portrayed. It’s a chemistry that hinges on our ability to believe the two don’t know how to be apart, and it works in a way that’s compelling and disturbing. Gary Oldman was the better of the two overall; his portrayal of Sid Vicious was frightening and funny. Most amazingly, he was also able to make a heroin addicted murder a sympathetic protagonist. Chloe Webb was good too, but I feel like she didn’t show as much range as Oldman. If you want a taste of how great Oldman really is, compare Sid Vicious's My Way video to the one in Sid and Nancy.
This is another really good film from Alex Cox. Its portrayal of drug addiction is probably very accurate, and it also paints an interesting and honest portrait of a man who has become a cult icon. This film is certainly not for everyone; it has a punk rock attitude and it doesn’t care if you know it, but that’s what makes this movie really good. For fans of Rock and Roll biopics, fans of the Sex Pistols or punk rock, or for fans of just really great acting and character studies, this film will be for you.
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