Sid and Nancy September 5, 2019
1 Hr., 52 Mins.
id Vicious, the bassist of the British punk band Sex Pistols, and Nancy Spungen, an American groupie, were good for each other and bad for each other. Certainly, they quelled needs in one another. Spungen instilled in Vicious a self-worth he didn’t have, and Vicious, in some ways, catered to Spungen’s maternalistic desires. But their symbiotic self-destruction was much more pronounced. Together they spiraled
down into heroin addiction. They frequently got into fights that turned violent. Then, infamously, Spungen bled to death after getting stabbed in their Chelsea Hotel room in the fall of 1978. (It still isn’t known whether Vicious was the one doing the stabbing.) A few months later, Vicious died of a drug overdose.
Alex Cox dramatizes their relationship in Sid and Nancy (1986), a humanizing romantic drama. It begins after the end of their torrid romance, when Sid is alone, despondent, and considered a prime suspect by the police. The rest of the feature takes place in flashback, chronicling the tumult. Before watching the film I knew little about Vicious and Spungen but was familiar with was the feeling that often comes when hearing the stories of tragic punk lore — this sense that you're sitting in the front roll of a rock 'n' roll opera even though you know things weren't so glamorous. Since I’m not so naïve to believe in a biopic’s veracity, what Sid and Nancy does remarkably well, rather than spout truth, is not only remind us that Vicious and Spungen’s real-time contributions were far more meager than what their over-discussed legacies would lead you to believe but that both of them were so young and reckless. They were kids, the movie shows, who lost their way early on and couldn’t recover in time. Spungen was 20 at the time of her demise. Vicious was 21 at his.
Vicious and Spungen are played, respectively, by Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb. Their casting seemed wonky to me at first. Both actors are far older than the people they’re playing; Webb was 30 and Oldman was 28 when the feature came out. But I was persuaded eventually. The too-old stuff shattered because it started uncannily complementing the fact that Vicious and Spungen grew up too soon anyway. And Oldman and Webb do the kind of acting that calls for the kind of compliment critics routinely use that I can’t stand: that they embody the people they’re playing.
Such really is the case here, though. Oldman and Webb inculcate in their performances a freaky realism that allows us to see when and where Vicious and Spungen might have been posturing for the public versus when they were being genuine. Part of the sadness here, though, is that perhaps Vicious and Spungen didn’t even know when they were being authentically themselves. Their senses of selves were almost entirely wrapped around behaviors and in Vicious’s case artistic expression rather than anything tangibly interior.
There’s a confusion to Vicious’s rebellion. It's like he’s more fixated on the reaction it garners than what it internally does for him. Webb allows us to hear what we imagine to be an extension of Spungen’s dubious self-hood. Often when she speaks in group settings there’s a vinegary growl she adds to her voice, which is I suppose an effort to supplement her public persona with an as-dubious coolness. The takeaway that Spungen possibly wanted to be more than she was becomes extra clear late in the movie when she laments to Vicious, “At least you used to be something. I’ve never been anything.”
Sid and Nancy is one of few biopics that convinces us that biographical accuracy is of less importance than what it does on emotional, visceral levels. It didn’t matter to me whether the movie was a veritable ethnographic account of the British rock scene of the late-1970s or even a true portrait of who Vicious and Spungen might have been. What it does is effectively scrub off the veneer of romanticism that coats almost all melodramatic rock ‘n’ roll stories, even after you’ve learned some or even most of the details and trained yourself to stop seeing things through a rose-colored smoke screen.
There’s a moment toward the end of Sid and Nancy where a fire starts in Spungen and Vicious’s hotel room. The latter is asleep; the former just watches it devour the carpet and drapes. This visual is not a celebration of self-destruction but a reminder of the pointlessness of it. It’s also a scary reminder, too, of what Vicious and Spungen might have become had they thought about what might happen if they didn’t let the chaos engulf them. B+