Sid and Nancy 30th anniversary

Sid and Nancy (1986) Director: Alex Cox

I like Alex Cox. The guy comes across as an engaging character and I always enjoyed his thought-provoking introductions on Moviedrome, a cult cinema series that introduced me to many obscure delights. How we could do with something similar on our TV screens today.

Alex Cox the director, though, isn’t someone I follow that closely. Repo Man was hugely popular with independent movie fans but it never quite lived up to the hype for me albeit it did display some real potential.

Rock biopics are a notoriously difficult type of film to pull off with the chances of pleasing avid fans of the act depicted and performing at the box office slim at best. When it was announced that Cox would be making Sid and Nancy, I reckoned he was as good a choice as any director to helm the project and his efforts would at least be intriguing.

Critics tend to rate Cox’s film highly. The New Statesman‘s Ryan Gilbey recently speculated on the possibility of Sid and Nancy being the ‘finest British film of the 1980s’. On the other hand Gary Oldman, who played Sid, admitted in an online interview that if he comes across the film while he’s channel surfing: ‘I wanna just throw the television out the window.’

Ouuch.

Sid and Nancy opens with a dazed Sid Vicious arrested in NYC. A sad and pathetic figure, strung out on smack and shocked by the murder of girlfriend Nancy Spungen.

We’re almost immediately transported back to happier times and Sid’s entry into The Sex Pistols. This is a cartoonish portrayal of punk. Life for Sid and his mate Johnny Rotten consists of drinking cans of lager in the streets, belching, spray painting a dominatrix pal’s living room walls and commenting on how boring everything is. If you had scant knowledge of punk and came across this then you could be forgiven for wondering what the fuss about The Sex Pistols was all about.

Oldman immediately convinces as the man born John Simon Ritchie but Drew Schofield completely fails to impress as Johnny. Ditto David Hayman in the role of Malcolm McLaren. It’s not long before inaccuracies begin to pile up too.

In his book Popcorn, Gary Mulholland lists many of these, even going as far as to include Nancy’s first meeting with Sid and Johnny, where she states: ‘I have all your L.Ps back home’. This being a time when they hadn’t released any albums. I liked the line myself, feeling it was typical patter from a junkie/groupie hoping to ingratiate herself. A moment later she mixes Johnny up with Sid. Such is life. If you’ve got a habit.

Chloe Webb does excel as Nancy Spungen, an instantly irritating wreck who whinges and whines throughout. Believe me, it’s not hard to see how she earned her Nauseating Nancy nickname.

Sid would have had to search long and hard to find a more toxic partner. A doomed coupling from the moment they got together.

Sid and Nancy still

There’s plenty of self-pity and self-mutilation but very little in the way of self-analysis. In Nancy’s case, the solution to just about every problem is to throw a hissy-fit, attempting to get her own way by guilt-tripping into submission anyone who won’t give her money or drugs.

Along the way, though, we’re shown more and more moments of tenderness between the pair and the scene set in the squalor of a New York alley with the couple kissing and garbage raining down around them in a slow-motion wide shot is truly memorable. I know because it’s been over thirty years since I watched the film and it has remained with me ever since – and I should mention here that I watched Sid and Nancy on a ‘Vintage Classics’ 30th anniversary edition blu-ray. A fact that makes me feel very, very old.

Sid and Nancy kissing

After the monotonous Johnny and Sid double act, there are plenty of comedic moments. At one point Sid is so spaced out he doesn’t know if it’s New Year or New York. He has an unexpected encounter with a plate-glass window. The recreation of the My Way video undoubtedly works too – the one moment where the real Sid Vicious got to shine. His way.

There’s also near constant heroin abuse, Sid taking a nasty beating and Sid dishing out some domestic violence against Nancy although Sid as a snotty-nosed mess on the subway line clinging desperately to Nancy managed to make the man oddly sympathetic. Momentarily anyway.

Then one of the strangest and most disturbing love stories in cinema history cops out with some sentimental surrealism as its ending. A flight of fancy too far that Cox himself later regretted.

Malcolm McLaren wasn’t a fan and Johnny Rotten dismissed the movie completely, going as far to claim that it glamourised drugs. I doubt myself a single person was persuaded to try out smack as a result of seeing it.

If you don’t mind a stream of anachronisms and dubious decisions like having Sid wear a hammer and sickle T-shirt rather than the swastika one that really was a part of his wardrobe, then you might well enjoy Sid and Nancy.

The re-created Sex Pistols music is pretty impressive. Probably because Glen Matlock played on it and even in his early days as a cinematographer, Roger Deakins already oozed talent. Sid, for example, looking out of the Chelsea Hotel on to bustling New York streets looks and sounds extraordinary.

The verdict?

A deeply flawed though generally compelling take on punk’s most high-profile couple.

Cox never again experienced the critical acclaim and interest that his two first features generated. His next feature, Spaghetti Western pastiche Straight to Hell, with a cast that included Joe Strummer, The Pogues, Courtney Love and Elvis Costello, proved a disappointment. Since then I’ve only seen one of his movies Repo Chick (where he was reunited with Chloe Webb). This was borderline unwatchable.

Oldman quickly became associated with what The Face dubbed the Britpack, a group of actors including Tim Roth and Miranda Richardson whose stars were on the rise in the mid-’80s. Interestingly Roth had declined the chance to play Rotten in Cox’s film. If he had accepted I’d guess the film would have been much improved.

Oldman’s next role was as another English rebel who also died young, Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears.

Nominated for an Oscar for 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, he finally scooped the big gong earlier this month for his turn as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. From a junky punk bassist to Britain’s wartime leader in just over thirty years.

No one will ever be able to claim he’s not versatile.