Alex Cox is a director the world needs now more than ever. A true, idiosyncratic voice in the medium. Do his films always work? No. Straight to Hell is a fascinating debacle (it deserves a look nonetheless), as is Revenger’s Tragedy. Repo Man and Walker stand up as curious masterpieces. Evidence of a man who knows his craft down pat but chooses to play around with it to create something bold and refreshing. Sid & Nancy, if anything stands as a curio in his output purely because it feels relatively conventional in the context of the rest of his output.
That’s not necessarily meant as a criticism as the film on it’s own. Mr. Cox has spoken several times over the years how he would change things were it made today. More odd touches. Less wholesome.
But I’m getting ahead of things. If you’re not famililar with the plot Sid & Nancy is an account of the blisteringly short career of Sid Vicious of The Sex Pistols fame. We see the bands meteroic rise to infamy which Sid (played by a Gary Oldman in his first lead role in a feature) was an instrumental part in. His look, his swagger, the fact he couldn’t really play the bass only added to the bands punk “we don’t give a fuck” vibe. In to his life comes “groupie” and drug addict Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb). Initially taking against each other in a big way, the two find a common bond as Sid’s desire to try some heroin brings the two together in a twisted star-crossed lovers path.
By this point you either know the path the couple took and if you don’t I won’t spoil it for you here. All you need to know that it’s tumultuous to say the least.
Now available in a restored version , overseen by the mighty Roger Deakins, as part of the UK’s celebration of 40 years punk (which seems both a hypocritical endeavour and weirdly charming), the question is does it hold up?
Cox’s has mentioned many times, even in interviews with the BBC to promote the films re-release that he wish he has done things differently. For instance he says he she have taken John Lydon’s (played here by pantomime-ish Andrew Schofield) advice to play Johnny Rotten as a brummie and create a whole new persona for him. Perhaps to make the whole film a more esoteric look on the punk movement and The Sex Pistols as whole. What Cox did create was a pretty straight forward bio film based around a brief period in two famous peoples lives. Which is why Sid & Nancy stands apart in Cox’ cannon, for it’s (dare I say) conventionality. Cox also brings up questions about the ending he tacked on to the film, which again I won’t go into.
Don’t get me wrong. Sid & Nancy is a very good film. Oldman is outstanding as Sid. With this performance it’s not difficult to see why he became an instantly sought after actor. Many people think of punk icons from the 70s as some GG Allin-style misanthrophe who wanted to destroy in order to present some kind of anarchic persona to the well. Oldman and Cox’s version of Sid strikes heartbreakingly true as a young man, barely out of his teens who was just as worried about finding a place to find some nice pizza as he was about tearing a club up to gain more notoriety. One stand out moment in the film shows Sid and Nancy get into a raging argument because he can’t find his favourite Action Man toy which then leads to a row about keeping his mum’s flat tidy. It’s a standout scene that shows this towering figure of the punk movement as a nervous young boy.
Equally striking are the scenes of Oldman’s Sid being questioned by police where you really believe that he is terrified and out of his depth. Chloe Webb for her part but’s in a blinder as Nancy. Unfortunately though Nancy is written as the hot-headed loud-mouth which her reputation presents. Webb is nothing other than devoted to the role, but given that Nancy is written as an obnoxious, scream machine it’s very easy to dislike her. It’s a mistake to dislike Webb as it’s a fantastic performance and a shame she didn’t go on roles as equally big as Oldman. But like Sid, there are moments of real pathos for Nancy. Despite her bravado you entirely get the sense that she was devoted to Sid. A scene where she tries to wake a sleeping Sid before he leaves for tour ends brilliantly as he leaves the room and she screams “WHAT ABOUT THE FAREWELL DRUGS?” before twisting into something much more tragic when the camera lingers on her sobbing alone in bed.
Despite the film revelling in the iconography of the punk movement and being guilty, at points, of idealising it’s subjects it stands as devastating love story.
You believe for every moment that these two people cannot live with or without each other. For every scream marathon they have they are moments of tender beauty, like the moment in alleyway with rubbish falling all around them.
The performances are entirely too broad in places by some of the support act, Xander Berkley makes a very welcome appearance. Other moments such as the New York kids running away from Sid in a comically sped up fashion feel like they’re from a different film all together and Nancy is a difficult lead character to get on board with. But Sid & Nancy stands up marvellously. You can’t keep your eyes off the leads, the time period is beautifully evoked, the difference between London and New York is realised brutally and the pace never lets up. It may be Alex Cox’s most conventional work but what a hell of a film it is.
Dir: Alex Cox
Scr: Alex Cox, Abbe Wool
Cast: Gary Oldman, Chloe Webb, David Heyman, Andrew Schofield, Xander Berkeley, Kathy Burke
Prd: Eric Fellner
DOP: Roger Deakins
Music: The Pogues, Pray For Rain
Run time: 112 mins
Sid & Nancy (30th Anniversary Edition) is available now on Blu-Ray and DVD.