In my head, Sid Vicious looks like Gary Oldman. Even though I had never seen 1986’s Sid & Nancy until, literally, yesterday. Having now seen the movie, I feel reasonably confident in saying that I had never even seen a clip from it; there was, at least, no scene that felt familiar. Yet somehow this film has been so much a part of the pop-culture undercurrent that it had that level of impact on me sight unseen.
Having now experienced Sid & Nancy — you don’t just watch it, you get immersed in it whether you want to or not — I can see why it has achieved cult-classic status. It offers a peek into the early years of the punk subculture that isn’t about the music so much as it is about the ethos: the boredom with the “straight” world, the nihilism, the anger, the rejection of sentimentality and of anything soft or hippie. It’s actively unpleasant, but it is often riveting just when it’s also repulsive. Writer-director Alex Cox (he made Repo Man just before this one) keeps the perspective so claustrophobic that the film mirrors its subjects: it is all id, all in the moment; there is no past, no future, just an endless painful now. Oldman (Child 44, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) as Sid, bass player for the English band the Sex Pistols, and Chloe Webb (Practical Magic) as his American girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, give performances that are so free of vanity, that seem to run on instinct, that so inhabit the heedless rage and self-hatred of these people that they hardly feel like performances at all. They are exhausting to watch.
But while there is certainly a sort of artistic triumph in making a film that may so authentically reflect its subjects, Sid & Nancy also frustratingly ignores the larger world they lived in. We don’t need to like the people we see onscreen, and indeed it is very difficult to like these two: they are crude, petulant vandals, overgrown violent children constantly throwing tantrums. Sid and Nancy would almost definitely have scoffed at the notion that they would or should engage our sympathy. But we are not them. We want to at least understand what drove them, and Cox never shows us anything that helps much. This portrait is shallow, all surface.
On a trip to the US (as part of a Sex Pistols tour), we meet Nancy’s family as she brings Sid to meet them, and they are so horrified by the couple that they cannot get rid of them fast enough. But to be fair, Sid and Nancy are pretty horrific, so we never know which came first, the rejection by her family (also hinted at earlier via a phone call home from London) or her life of heroin addiction and a self-destructive relationship with a man, also an addict, who would eventually kill her. (Sid died of a drug overdose six months after her death, while he was out on bail, so he never made it to trial. Though there seems to be some question now whether he’s the one who actually killed her.) We learn almost nothing about Sid’s life prior to meeting Nancy, and almost nothing about the culture that gave rise to punk in England in the first place.
One astonishing bit does have Sid and Nancy simply walking along in London while schoolkids in uniforms — girls and boys — run past, bashing parked cars with hockey sticks and cricket bats, an indication that youthful anger is not confined to the punk movement. But what is it all about? Where did it come from? The movie has nothing to say on this, and it feels like an omission, particularly because Sid Vicious is an icon of this anger.
Emotionally and culturally, then, Sid & Nancy is a bit of a vacuum. “No feelings,” someone has written in lipstick on a bathroom mirror at a party, and this is, I’m sure, an attitude that Sid and Nancy and their acquaintances — it seems like a stretch to call any of these people “friends” — would like to have believed applied to them. But they were human, and we get hints of tenderness between the couple: her sweet surprise when he doesn’t expect her to jump out of bed and leave first thing in the morning after the first time they have sex; in one of the film’s most visually striking moments, they kiss in a New York City alleyway as garbage rains down around them in slo-mo. It’s a really obvious metaphor for their relationship, and probably an accurate one, but Cox gives us way too much of the garbage and not enough of what turned them into the deeply wounded people who were drawn to each other in the first place.
Sid & Nancy is new on DVD and blu-ray in the UK in a new 30th-anniversary edition with a restoration supervised by cinematographer Roger Deakins.