Sid & Nancy isn't really about the British punk rock band the Sex Pistols, but rather fictionalizes the doomed, drug-fueled relationship between bassist Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman, in his breakout film role) and all-American groupie Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb). Director Alex Cox, fresh off his cult success Repo Man, delivers his masterpiece with this sublime, unique love story which was given the Criterion treatment way back in 1998 as spine #20. Criterion has finally released Sid & Nancy on Blu-ray with a brand new 4K scan approved by director of photography Roger Deakins and some additional extras; speaking as someone who proudly owned and took good care of the original Criterion DVD since its release, this upgrade is beyond welcome.
In early 1978, punk musicians Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious are destroying property and other kinds of rebellious mischief when they stop off at a friend's for a breakfast of champagne and baked beans; it's here when Sid meets Nancy, who claims she worships them and their music. Sid really isn't much of a bass player, yet Nancy is transfixed by his bad boy personality and soon both realize they share a love for heroin. Rotten is seriously annoyed by the union, particularly when Sid struggles with the guitar and getting the lyrics right to their songs; he views Nancy more as a whiny distraction rather than someone who will help Sid get his sh*t together. When the Sex Pistols' manager orders the couple to separate for a month so the band can go on an American tour, it brings out the worst in Sid, who goes so far as scrawling Nancy's name across his chest with a razor blade. Primarily due to Sid's alarming and uncontrollable behavior, the band ultimately breaks up and goes their separate ways. When Sid and Nancy are finally reunited they come to depend on one another as he attempts to build a solo career with Nancy acting as his manager. However, their dependence on hard drugs takes a serious toll on their minds and bodies, as they eventually find themselves holed up at the infamous Chelsea Hotel in New York City. Sid wakes up one morning in October and finds Nancy dead in the bathroom, evidently due to a single stab wound to her abdomen. Then in February 1979, Sid Vicious would overdose on heroin.
What must be emphasized is that Sid & Nancy is not an easy film to watch, due to its graphic use of heroin, speed and other hardcore drugs, although what's important is that writer-director Alex Cox doesn't glorify the use of said drugs. I first saw the movie in high school and by the end I knew that I was never going to stick a needle in my arm for any reason, as Sid & Nancy was more educational than any crash course forced upon us in elementary schools. Sure, the movie is about a pair of junkies who most sane individuals would be embarrassed to hang around, but their love for each other is both palpable and powerful, as it was in real life no doubt. While Cox tends to stray away from the cold hard facts, his approach to the story works beautifully in terms of its construction and execution; on top of everything, there are fascinating parallels to the relationship between Kurt Cobain & Courtney Love many years later. The latter also appears for the first time on film as Gretchen, one of the couple's strung-out friends and the sight of her in the beginning crying over Nancy's body sets a truly harrowing, even prophetic tone. Love evidently had lobbied hard to play Nancy and while I'm not trying to take anything away from Chloe Webb or her terrific performance, it's truly eerie how much Love physically resembles the real-life Nancy. Supposedly Cox was told by his investors to get a more experienced actress, but Love is the real deal and no doubt would have killed this role as she would years later in The People Vs. Larry Flynt playing Larry's drug-addicted wife Althea who died of AIDS. Still, it is Chloe Webb who wound up with the role and while she is clearly much older than the character she plays, she still sells Nancy's reportedly real-life manipulation and domination, complete with fair amount of nails-on-the-blackboard screeching.
As great as Webb is, however, it was Gary Oldman who would eventually become an A-list star. Oldman himself has generally dismissed his own performance, despite the fact he put himself through hell to achieve Sid Vicious' almost skeletal appearance by an extreme diet which landed the actor in the hospital at one point. I've loved Oldman in practically everything he's done in the past 30 years, but there is something so real and raw about his Sid Vicious which makes it truly standout in his resume. Recall that Oldman was classically trained by the Royal Shakespearean Company just prior to landing the role and the fact Sid & Nancy has been cited as a punk version of Romeo & Juliet makes the casting all the more inspired. Oldman's chemistry with Webb burns brightly onscreen from the very first time they shoot heroin and have sex; it can be chilling, even depressing watching their joint self-destruction, but it's practically impossible not to be emotionally affected by it. Personally, I think Sid & Nancy is one of the all-time great love stories, not just because of the performances, but the tenderness in which Cox injects in many scenes to combat the misery eventually generated within the walls of the Chelsea Hotel in the film's quasi-oppressive second half. Devotees of punk, as well as Sex Pistols' lead singer Johnny Rotten may very well strongly disagree with my assessment because of the creative license the film abuses in presenting these real-life characters; well, on behalf of the film's massive cult fan base, I would croon exactly what Sid himself would after strumming the guitar, “We don't f*cking care!”
Speaking of strumming guitars, that brings us to the film's indelible soundtrack, which may not boast any actual songs by the Sex Pistols, but rather utilizes several original tunes provided by Joe Strummer, the legendary lead singer of the Clash, another British punk band who rocked their way to glory in the 1970s. Strummer's song “Love Kills,” was meant to be the original title of the film and while he was given onscreen credit for only one other song (“Dum Dum Club”), in reality he contributed much more to the soundtrack without credit. Several memorable pieces of the score was composed by Pray for Rain; other choice tunes are supplied by the Pogues including the appropriately-titled “Haunted.” What's most astonishing is that Gary Oldman actually sings several songs originally done by Vicious, including his infamous rendition of “My Way,” as well as “Something Else” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” In closing, I want to re-iterate that Sid & Nancy is definitely a tough watch, and those who have never seen the movie before will want to rent/stream before committing themselves to purchasing Criterion's exquisite Blu-ray. Years ago, when I was working in a video store (remember those?) a substance abuse counselor came in requesting for a movie to show to her committed patients; I took a chance and loaned her my personal copy of the Criterion edition as there was no regular copy available for rental. While she was initially rather disgusted at the high amount of foul language, she said the hour-long conversation with the group afterwards was incredibly rewarding and, yes, quite sobering. She ended up borrowing it again several more times for other groups and colleagues.
- BLU-RAY SPECS & EXTRAS -
Criteron's Blu-upgrade is truly a long time coming for fans of Sid & Nancy. Director of photography Roger Deakins (one of my great favorites, considering everything he's shot for Sam Mendes and the Coen Bros since then) personally supervised a new 16-bit 4K digital transfer from the original 35mm camera negative. Kudos to colorist Lee Kline and Radious 60 in LA, as Sid & Nancy has never looked more clean or immaculate, with not a single visual or audio flaw detected. The stereo soundtrack was also given equal attention with the elements completely remastered from the original 35mm magnetic track with the preferred LPCM 2.0 Stereo, as well as an alternate 5.1 surround soundtrack. Many of the same extras have been ported from Criterion's original DVD, including an audio commentary recorded in 1994 for the Laserdisc featuring spliced interviews with co-screenwriter Abbe Wool, Oldman, Webb, cultural historian Greil Marcus, musician Eliot Kidd and filmmakers Julian Temple & Lech Kowalski. This track is essential in providing historical background by delving into the British punk rock scene in the 1970s, and particularly on the Sex Pistols. In addition, there is also much to learn about the real Sid and Nancy, which will prove invaluable to those who hunger for more context on their lives and deaths, particularly the latter as it remains hotly debated to this very day. A second commentary, recorded back in 2001, brings together Alex Cox and actor Andrew Schofield, who provided a Scouse accent while playing the Sex Pistols' lead singer. This track focuses more on the making of the movie and the in particular the numerous musical performances; by contrast, it's a bit more lively and enjoyable than the first commentary, yet both are well worth listening to.
Additional extras include England's Glory, an archival documentary from 1987 which runs a half hour long; a brand-new interview with Alex Cox conducted in 2016 when the film was given a theatrical re-release; a rare 1978 phone interview with Sid Vicious recorded when he was in a New York hospital recovering from an overdose; interviews with the actual Sid & Nancy recorded by Kowalski for his 1980 documentary D.O.A.: A Right of Passage, which focused exclusively on the Pistols' failed American tour; the insane 1976 interview of the Pistols on British television with Bill Grundy which firmly established their rebellious reputation; another British TV excerpt from 1976 focusing exclusively on the British punk scene in terms of music and fashion; the original 1986 theatrical trailer; and, finally, a booklet containing a pair of essays: “The Horrible Purity of Immortality” by Jon Savage and “On Sid and Nancy and Sid & Nancy,” an assemblage of interviews conducted by Alex Cox in his research prior to shooting the film which were originally published as an introduction to the film's screenplay. Considering the breathtaking amount of bonus material and Criterion's expected attention to detail, the Blu-ray of Sid & Nancy comes highly recommend...albeit with a serious warning.
- ABOUT THE AUTHOR -
Stone Gasman has been addicted to cinema ever since he was a child, becoming hooked on Chaplin, Hitchcock and Wilder by the time he was 10 years old. The film which changed his life was The Best Years of Our Lives, the 1946 winner for Best Picture and eight additional Oscars, which ultimately inspired him to join the US Navy. He is now a disabled veteran residing in New York City.