Background: After a long hiatus of being out of print, Alex Cox’s punk-rock cult hit Sid & Nancy (Spine #20) returns to the Criterion Collection. The film was Cox’s first to be included in the main collection, preceding Walker (Spine #423) and Repo Man (Spine #654).
Story: After a fateful meeting, Sex Pistols bass player Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) and American junkie Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb) begin a star-crossed, mutually destructive romance. As the two plummet further and further into the grip of heroin addiction, Sid sets out with the Pistols on their disastrous American tour, becomes a solo act, and vanishes into pathetic semi-obscurity. Despite repeated attempts to get clean, Sid and Nancy plummet into a downward spiral of emotional abuse and self-destruction. Their story ends when Sid “accidentally” stabs Nancy to death while staying in New York City’s Hotel Chelsea.
The Film: “Remember: junkies don’t go to heaven.” That’s how director Alex Cox signs off from his commentary track on the new Criterion Blu-ray release of his widely despised, widely celebrated underground hit Sid & Nancy. This rather blunt dismissal comes during the film’s hallucinatory ending where a seemingly resurrected Nancy Spungen appears out of the ether in a yellow taxi cab to embrace her lover/killer Sid Vicious, the two cuddling in the backseat as the unseen driver sets off for parts unknown. Cox makes no secret of his disdain for the ending and the film’s reception by critics and audiences as some kind of tragic romance, admitting that in hindsight he wishes he had ended it with a shot of Sid lying in a pool of his own vomit dead of a heroin overdose. He’s adamant that the point of the film was that addiction—particularly heroin addiction what with its status as the narcotic of choice for celebrities and artists—wasn’t glamours or cool: it destroyed people. And in the case of Sid and Nancy, traitors to the political aspirations of the punk movement they swore allegiance to.
Of course, it’s difficult to glean this from the film itself. A kaleidoscopic fever dream of youthful anarchy, it sometimes seems like it’s glorifying their relationship, mostly because their antics seem like the natural extension of Cox’s depiction of the London punk scene. From the opening scene of Sid and Sex Pistols lead singer Johnny Rotten (Andrew Schofield) smashing up a nice car and threatening a small dog just because they’re there and they’re bored, it seems like nihilistic self-immolation is par for the course. There’s little difference between Sid’s onstage antics from when he’s playing with the Pistols in a London dive-bar—and assaulting one of the patrons with his bass guitar—and when he’s performing his infamous cover of Frank Sinatra’s My Way while stoned off his ass.
Much of this difficulty in separating Sid & Nancy from mistaken romanticization also comes from the constant pitch of Webb’s performance as the doomed Nancy, a performance which, in a universe of overused adjectives, actually deserves to be called legendary. From her very first few scenes she’s a shrill, bleating, magma-hot ball of misdirected fury and self-hatred. (During my research, I found that in real life Nancy was schizophrenic, a detail I’m astounded didn’t make it into the film.) If anything changes in her performance as the film continues, it’s the frequency in which she throws catastrophic fits. So it’s difficult not to infer that the film celebrates Nancy’s behavior as the very thing that drew Sid to her in the first place.
But I’m babbling. Misguided stabs at thematic clarity aside, Sid & Nancy is a brutal tour de force, pulling few punches in its depictions of drug addiction and the raucous punk scene that nearly split British culture apart in the 70s. Famed cinematographer Roger Deakins captured Cox’s innate energy and verve without sacrificing any of his indie-bred verisimilitude, somehow managing to make a film at once punishingly ugly and breath-catchingly beautiful, especially in the last act where they deliberately used only meticulously framed master shots to capture the mood of two young people co-signing each other to oblivion. What we have here is a scrappy indie with big studio production values. It’s a marvel it ever got made.
The Supplements: Perhaps sensing they had to make up for the film’s long absence from the Collection, the folks at Criterion outdid themselves in terms of supplements, jam-packing the release with multiple audio commentaries, short documentaries about the film’s production, interviews with the cast and crew, and archival footage of the original Sex Pistols themselves. But my favorite has to be the aforementioned audio commentary with Cox. What I didn’t mention beforehand was that he did the commentary alongside Schofield. The two together are an absolute delight; it’s a joy to listen to these two old friends reminisce over the production and bitch about how the film was misperceived. It also provided perhaps the biggest belly-laugh I’ve ever had listening to an audio commentary: an exasperated Cox deadpanning the advice “If you have a choice between heroin and sex, choose sex.”
Overall: You have few excuses not to pick this Blu-ray up. A stunning transfer of a flawed yet devastating film, this release of Sid & Nancy is a treasure trove for cinephiles and Criterion completionists alike.
Film Grade: B+
Criterion Grade: A