The flawless transfer of writer/director Alex Cox’s equally flawless cinematic story of the mutually destructive relationship between Sex Pistols’ punk rock bassist Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) and his groupie girlfriend Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb), includes a number of documentaries that examine both the film and its subjects. Our own Kurt Loder is interviewed throughout and offers up a brilliant insight. Loder points out that at night, in the dark, the punk lifestyle looks glamorous, but that in the daytime, it looks like a nightmare existence.
Loder is exactly right, which goes a long to explain why Cox stages most of his action in daylight and why the result of this alternately harrowing, beautiful, and poignant examination of two heroin addicts is the furthest thing from just another piece of Hollywood nihilism. Cox never flinches from the debasement that made up much of the life of our two protagonists. The genius of the script, though, is how the presentation of those moments is easier to take thanks to a wickedly funny and knowing sense of humor. You find yourself laughing out loud at the absurdity and outright stupidity of how these two lived their horrible lives, fed their habit, and raged in self-delusion against reality and their own self-immolation:
Nancy: I fucking hate them! I fucking hate them! ! Fucking motherfuckers! They wouldn’t send us any money! They said we’d spend it on DRUGS!
Sid: We would!
Nancy: I hate my fuckin’ life.
Sid: This is just a rough patch. Things’ll be much better when we get to America, I promise.
Nancy: We’re in America. We’ve been here a week. New York is in America, you fuck.
Best of all, the story never denies its protagonists their humanity. In order to feel every moment of a slow-motion suicide, Cox makes it impossible for us not to pity Sid and Nancy, even though their many flaws are always on display. As two unspent lives swirl the drain, the glimpses we’re given into what could’ve been (especially with respect to Sid) makes these moments touching in a way that sneaks up on you. And as destructive as the relationship was, we do know for certain that these two truly loved one another and, moreover, we are never allowed to forget how heartbreakingly young they were (he was 21, she was 20).
Cox never excuses or asks us in any way to sympathize with the behavior or actions of his characters. While we might admire their free spirits and refusal to conform to the establishment, how these qualities manifest into action is an honest-to-God horror story. The monster is the pursuit of pleasure, the victims are the two people who created that monster, and the price they pay is an inability to ever experience happiness.
Gary Oldman’s performance is, in my opinion, one of the greatest of the ’80s. The actor doesn’t mimic, he transforms. Even though he’s a much bigger star today and an instantly recognizable face, you never see Oldman, you only see Sid. And without any exposition or contrived moments, you see in the actor’s eyes the pride, confusion, helplessness, and rage that made Vicious both compelling and self-destructive. You see the man not the symbol or the celebrity.
Webb has an even harder job in making the persistently obnoxious and harping Nancy into someone we don’t want to see end up dead. Webb makes Nancy funny, though, very funny, and her lack of self-awareness is surprisingly endearing. Nancy’s child-like innocence makes it impossible not to like her:
Nancy: [Pointing] No! Look, that’s the roller ramma. Sid, I won a roller skating trophy there when I was six years old.
Granma: Nancy, don’t fib.
Nancy: Fuck you, Grandma.
Nancy is neither mean nor vindictive, just young, selfish, and clueless. One of the most poignant scenes is how legitimately hurt and confused she is by the rejection of her family after the drugged out couple spends a little time at home (the sequence itself is a trour de force of filmmaking).
“Sid and Nancy” is a genuine cinematic classic, one of the best biopics you’ll ever see, and one of the strongest anti-drug films to date. Cox’s genius is never letting go of the humanity in the squalor, and I dare you to not be moved as the doomed couple shares a tender kiss in a filthy alley as garbage rains down on them or to be touched by their final moment together.
This is one of those films where the idea of home video feels like magic. For a mere $18 bucks you can own a perfect copy of a masterpiece and watch it again and again and again.