Today’s entry in our ongoing exploration of punks on film is brought to you by our good friend Eric D. Leach from The Cult Movie Reviews, where you can find Eric waxing nostalgic about all manners of classic and contemporary horror films. Find that HERE…
When Basement Screams offered me the opportunity to review a punk orientated movie I chose Alex Cox and his wonderful, no holds barred 1986 biopic film Sid & Nancy, based on two of the most unlikely but important iconic punk figures of the mid era of the 1970’s music scene, it was a ‘no brainer’ really. There are ample reasons for appreciating this fine piece of movie glory on many structured levels besides what the films obvious title infers in its biographical context. This film is not just a feature based on two famous but extremely damaged characters, (Nancy Spungen in particular) but what this gem offers us in the first part of Alex Cox direction is a fantastic recapturing atmosphere of a very specific, important and retrospective moment of historical musical provenance and how and what the ‘punk’ scene ultimately came to epitomise for both the right reasoning but sadly and more oftly for the wrong reasons which in the main and particularly in the case of The Sex Pistols seemed inevitable. Those interested in the punk phenomenon who were either not born, too young, or cared little at the time (after the event) for what many would in later years appreciate for being part of a very important cultural uprising. Sadly those who wanted to gain in financial terms e.g. Malcolm McLaren who often used aggressive manipulation methods as a marketing ploy and the use of nurturing self publicising exercises that deliberately courted controversial media coverage that included numerous record labels throwing silly money at the band in order to entice them to sign for them, glaring example being (EMI). Cox in this early reminisce deals with two major points of memorable significance which included the now famous live early evening Thames television broadcast of the Today Programme that became known by the press in particular as ‘The Filth and the Fury’ incident which saw Pistols lead guitarist Steve Jones use abusive language in a pre-watershed verbal tirade during Bill Grundy’s (condescending and provocative) interview of the band and their entourage that included amongst its brethren one Siouxsie Sioux, she of the Banshees. Then there was the very famous barge on the Thames incident during the 1977 Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II June 7th celebrations which ended in the high-profile arrest of guests, band members, and Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren by the London constabulary, all incidents well documented here by Cox who does well to segregate the film into well proportioned retellings of the tale and the different strands that made the bands story so unique and excitable for the time. What makes the direction of Cox so plush and vibrant is how he deals with the band issues as well as using important juxtapositions to integrate the main focal point before eventually concentrating in greater detail on Vicious and Spungen and their descent into eventual oblivion. Before the movie moves into drug addiction and violence, Alex Cox starts at the beginning by highlighting the events that started it all and early on provides answers to why The Sex Pistols became public enemy number one and gained the punk rock movement it’s often negative stereotypical notoriety.
The opening scene of the movie begins with the introduction of the New York Police Dept hurrying around a drab and filthy, blood soaked room situated in New York’s famous Chelsea Hotel. A homicide detective grabs a chair and places it down in front of a pale and silent figure before seating himself in front of the man who sits catatonic upon the edge of the bed. As the detective begins to ask questions of the mute, spikey haired man two members of the county coroners office sweep past the police officers in order to take away the body of a dead female whom lays upon the bathroom floor. What we have here is the tragic after effect of a drug fuelled event that as left Nancy Spungen – Chloe Webb dead from a single knife wound and Sid Vicious – Gary Oldman now under suspicion of murder. The date is October 12, 1978.
In flashback we are transferred back to London, 1977. The first half of this film subsequently deals with the already active and most notorious punk band and its rise to fame and infamy. We first witness the high jinks antics of two close friends and Sex Pistols band members Sid Vicious and Pistols frontman John Joseph Lydon aka Johnny Rotten, a brilliant high standard portrayal by Andrew Schofield which throughout often shows a complex and at times extremely humourous, intellectual, tongue in cheek side to Rotten that many people, critics often, chose to ignore. Schofield’s performance should at no time be underestimated and stands on equal terms amongst many of the high calibre performances throughout the film’s duration. This is also the moment when both characters John and Sid are initially introduced via their dominatrix friend Linda – Anne Lambton to her american friend, one Nancy Spungen! The film subsequently goes on to deal with the band and its other individual members including, Paul Cook – Perry Benson and Steve Jones – Tony London. We are also introduced to the band’s manager, Malcolm McLaren – David Hayman and the frequent entourage that often accompanied the Pistols roadshow this also includes the more frequent and ever-increasing presence of one Nancy Laura Spungen into the fold as would be girlfriend of one John Simon Ritchie aka Sid Vicious. In this part of the film Alex Cox wonderfully recreates the chaotic backdrop for establishing many of the important protagonist. From the madness of ongoing events such as the bands attempts to integrate Sid Vicious in an almost impossible task of learning bass guitar after replacing the bands original bassist Glenn Matlock at a time when the Pistols are in the midst of recording their powerful debut classic album Never Mind the Bollocks… Cox manages to deal admirably with using London as the gathering and social backdrop for the bands rise to fame coinciding with the beginning of Sid’s introduction and appetite for heroin and Nancy’s already burgeoning heroin abuse, which soon spirals into a companionship based on love and drug addiction. During all the processes of main storyline the direction of Cox is quite breathtaking and unrelenting as he continually uses the film to highlight and deal spectacularly with the cultural movement and those at the forefront of this chaotic musical awakening which we came to associate with this group of misfits. In regard of The Sex Pistols, Cox soon clearly identifies and plays upon the corrosion between the band members and also points out though Spungen’s hold on Vicious did become in large part a negative presence within the ranks of the band, at no time does Cox solely blame her for the sudden fracture within the band as many did, still do even to this today. What Cox clearly identifies, “thank goodness” was how manipulative and deceitful Malcolm McLaren’s part played in events as the ‘Agent Provocateur’, especially when it came in the form of the inevitable breakdown of the band as a live entity and furthermore how he did little other than constantly antagonise certain delicate elements, often deliberately it seemed adding fuel to many of the negative situations that much of the bands private and public outbursts both in the UK & US respectively became a regular occurrence by this time. McLaren began using the unrest to further his own propaganda campaign and the assumption was that he deliberately hoped, (gambled?) for an ill-fated American tour during the commencement of 1978. Again McLaren hoped that negative publicity would become a positive that would sell the disenfranchised youth of America a punk ethos of stern musical antagonism and confrontation, McLaren hoping as had happened in the UK that such social graces or lack of would lead to publicity you could not buy and with it the probable record sales that would amass as a result. The deliberate booking of certain venues during this tour and the indifference of many audience members would become a provocative catalyst for every conceivable aggressive opposition by both the band toward the American public in general and in particular in the deep South were audiences consisted largely of what American’s themselves called “Rednecks”. McLaren in particular wanted to enthuse the cultural differences here which would often guarantee physical violence erupting, the result often being band verses audience showdowns. McLaren had undoubtedly known this would transpire? What he did not expect however was that on the final date of the Pistols US tour, a moment of clarity for lead singer and frontman Johnny Rotten would mark this day as the last gig the band would play together as a live unit. The date was 14 January, 1978. The venue was the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. After the band played their one and only song ‘No Fun’ a Iggy & The Stooges cover, Johnny Rotten announced openly to the audience. “ Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated? …Good night”. The band by this time had wrongly become a sideshow for Johnny Rotten’s ambitions of independence and his now constant fighting with all members of the band internally. Then there was Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen who now believed that Sid’s charisma? and his/their own self obsessed visions of grandeur, (influenced indirectly by McLaren) of the ‘Vicious’ potential trademark would unwittingly or otherwise soon become the focus of all the music worlds attention, they would in essence become the unlikely holders of the public limelight and subsequently became the epitomic defining imagery of what was left behind of punks most famous but now broken counter-culture and its last stand.
As the film’s director ends the first part of these whirlwind events we are reminded of what The Sex Pistols ultimately left behind as a legacy which was a world that sought to step forward kicking and screaming and now in decades of visionary hindsight there is no doubt this band shook things up for an apathetic music industry establishment that was very boring and somewhat too set in its ways, (definitely!) Sadly for the Pistols their ‘live’ physical disbandment in the US came at precisely the time it seemed they had accomplished their mission to smash down many barriers but sadly their splintering demise left only memories of a band constantly plagued by infighting rather than offering an opportunity of what could have been? What was a far greater travesty however was what rose from the remaining ashes, which was a lone drug fuelled punk rocker left at the mercy of unscrupulous record producers. Two remaining band members Steve Jones and Paul Cook now left with the product name of a band that had lost its lead singer and the bass player that had become nothing other than trouble. Sid had become a drug addicted jester that sadly had an over inflated opinion of his own possible worth as the bands star asset. The irony here being highlighted by Cox is that Sid’s real star quality potential should anyone have really cared! could have been a distinct possibility but alas as history went on to prove, Sid Vicious became more of a caricature of what people perceived of him as a figurehead of a punk representation rather than a true star in the making? Also see: Julien Temple’s The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle 1980.
The second part of this film is not just about social observations but is more uniquely Alex Cox refusing to just deal with the rise and fall elements of idolatry as was the case in point regarding Sid Vicious and the band that spawned the original “fuck You” attitude to worldwide audiences, news headlines, social confrontation, derision and eventual opportunism. Also add the potential melting pot of what had been a tribal togetherness that unfortunately did not last thanks to the rearing ugly head of individual egotistical in fighting and the manipulating of such an incendiary construct by the dodgy Malcolm McLaren in particular and that alone would make for a great storyline to end what would be an entertaining movie tale but this director offers more than standard fare here and in doing so begins to expand on not just the blatantly obvious aspects of this well documented and famed dynamic of what made The Sex Pistols a band that produced a seminal album with ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ but in the end all the worlds observations just concentrated on their infamy rather than looking at the albums unique output by a band trying to be considered serious musicians and not the circus act and self deprecators they sadly became. (The Patsy Syndrome?) To anyone who thinks The Sex Pistols were a freak show and nothing more and have never heard their debut album, then may I suggest you check out N.M.T.B’s and then you may have more understanding of why the McLaren inspired side-show hid true musical genius.
As we leave behind the legendary Sex Pistols as was! we now turn more specifically to the eponymous Sid and Nancy and more so what made our two main anti social, at times ununique and unpleasant misfits initially so fascinating. The dramatic downward spiral that comes along the side of expectant fame and potential for great fortune in this case is instead replaced with the seeds of an inevitable downfall. Cox uses Oldman and Webb’s substantially “stunning” performances as a hard-hitting metaphorical epitaph of self-deprecating despair as we come to bare witness to great self-induced misfortune and self-destruction on a major scale. Sadly in the case of both Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen we see the excesses of extreme drug addiction slowly but surely ‘destroy’ (ironically a slogan used by punk merchandising!) two very troubled and lost souls. Before we are made uncomfortable by their often childish behaviour and self abusive, self-indulgent actions and their unambiguous attitude which comes as a consequence of a false drug induced economy of which Sid and Nancy must now believe is their idea of reality as those that surround them become largely apathetic by lack of support and just seem to let these two uncontrollable sociopaths behave with impunity. We the viewer are temporarily offered a sudden false dawn which offers possible good fortune as the relationship shows brief signs of hope as Sid and Nancy begin to make plans and Sid begins his brief solo career well still under the Pistols banner and with Nancy in loving tow as those around seek to gain quick capital on the Pistols almost complete breakup and Sid’s obvious potential. The dream however is very short-lived. Alex Cox sense of detail of the last few months of this tale of woe in which he concentrates firstly on Sid and Nancy’s time in Paris where Sid shoots his famous Olympia Ballroom version of “My Way” and the accompanying film footage for The Sex Pistols movie to be? It is early April 1978. This reenactment is quite an amazing set piece by Cox and he takes this reconstruction as the moment that came to define Sid Vicious at his all to brief musical pinnacle and show Gary Oldman’s reinterpretation of this famous set piece still one of Oldman’s finest acting moments. What many people are still totally unaware of is the fact that Sid’s improvisation of the original lyrics to his version was luck rather than choice. Well recording the song for vinyl release the process became a painstaking virtual stop, start, word for word production. Sid’s forgetfulness and increasing paranoia had made him very ill by this point and though the end result of ‘My Way’ is a very important moment in musical history and offered many of a certain age and vintage a song that summed up everything by accident or great visionary construct had also inadvertently I am afraid tolled a bell to the world that despite the chaos that surrounded the Pistols and its individual members, this Sid Vicious moment really did come to epitomise the beginning of the end for punk as the sole light bearer for independence and difference. This moment was the shedding of old skin and the dawn of the New Wave movement, much of which was formed initially by punk’s roots spreading outwards into other musical fusions. Sid Vicious through his own devises would quickly embody punks yesterday and though his covers of Eddie Cochran work and Sinatra, Anka’s ‘My Way’ became successful in their own right. The sad fact was that Vicious and his claim to fame would peak mainly in later years and become more a posthumous event that hid away the original oncoming downfall. The subsequent release of Julien Temple’s The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle clearly shows a captured time frame which shows a humourous Sid Vicious legacy. I strongly recommend that if you watch Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy you also give Swindle a viewing as a Punk double/treble bill: Also check out Julien Temple’s The Filth and the Fury from 2000. This ultimately completes the Pistols story with a combined cornucopia of visuals of a documented life of a madcap band.
We now head towards the inevitable epilogue of Sid and Nancy and like the Titanic we all know how this story is going to end. The last 50 minutes of Cox’s punk biopic is an intense and grim ride about the couples last few months together living in New York City, specifically their time cohabiting in the famous Manhattan based Chelsea Hotel. As the famous couple become an almost daily public freak show event as many New Yorkers become largely immunised to their presence, it is their dependence on heroin that becomes foremost to their existence and we the viewer become consumed in the roller coaster ride that is the movies pivotal acknowledgement of the fall of Sid and Nancy. Chloe Webb just about steals the film away from the mesmerizing Gary Oldman and both together make this film a powerful tour de force. The earthy humourous melodrama of the first half of this quite brilliant filmic salute to the punk generation is marked and matched by the darker side of this final monumental battle against drug decrepitude that hangs around like ‘The Elephant in the room”. Quite literally? The interaction between Oldman and Webb is genuinely spellbinding as it is disturbing in equal measure, which is all the more encapsulating considering the subject matter on show but what is equally as absorbing is how Oldman and Webb genuinely manage to convey the wreckage of their characters as they walk into the arms of a real hell created by apathy and an increasing violent combatant relationship that has no moral compass left to salvage. Whatever is left of their fading personality becomes haggled and disoriented and extremely dangerous toward the end of the relationship (The fire in their room scene is quite unbelievable). Alex Cox deals with the disintegration of two people in a way very few directors have been able to convey regarding substance abuse and its dreadful aftermath. Never since Uli Edel’s wonderful Christiane F has a film entertained and engrossed as a form of hard-edged entertainment as Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy does. Every sinew, character nuisance and portrayal is given great life and a full bloom that never at any point tries to hide away from the hidden reality of the “Sex, Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll” urban legend that often accompanies such a lifestyle. Furthermore Sid and Nancy is a unique biographical experience. I am sorry but it is that good. There is no saccharin coating, nor false dawn and at no point titillates. (Okay, perhaps the end scene?) But other than that it never dulls the senses or hides the abject cruelty and sadness that draws the final curtain upon this movies tragic ending and objectively it never shows either Sid Vicious or Nancy Spungen in a positive light, nor should it on any sensible level. Alex Cox is not willing to bow to peer pressure and glamorize the predicament of our two anti-heroes. Neither is the director dictating his viewpoint upon the films would be audience. What Cox does is brilliantly re-document events and smashes people over the head, reminding many of us who have chosen to wear rose-tinted glasses regarding this era in pop culture that the end of the punk revolution and most of what many took from it as a cultural event must be offered this movie as a reminder that some original fans of The Sex Pistols or Sid Vicious are tarnished by a blinkered imagining of a utopian time. Here lies the stench of hypocrisy and bullshit that everything punk – “Rock ‘n’ Roll” in the particular case of Sidney Vicious and Nancy Spungen was wonderful. The fact was it was nothing other than an unmitigated disaster that led to the accidental death/murder of Nancy by her lover Sid. A scene that is graphically depicted in this film and shows the full horror of what probably happened leading up to Nancy’s death?
On February 2nd, 1979, Sid Vicious died of a heroin overdose several months after the death of his beloved Nancy. What is all the more sad is the fact that the day prior to his death Sid had been released from a seven week period of incarceration in which time he had completely detoxed from his drug dependency. Alex Cox uses the end of his film imagery to shoot a surreal scene in which Sid sees Nancy in a dream vision. They are driven away in the back of a New York yellow cab, this is the only time Cox drops his guard and offers us the ending that suggest an eternal afterlife together in each others company? This is in no way a criticism of Alex Cox just an acknowledgement that Sid’s violent demise was never dealt with as the movies gritty unrelenting pursuit regarding the truth behind this controversial period in punk history had done from minute one. This film is an almost perfect retrospective delve into the punk scene and those who gave it a vibrance and mythology that today as still great relevance many generations later. This Alex Cox masterpiece is simply sublime and as a biographical film experience it is unsurpassed.
Did you know that Alex Cox originally wanted to cast Courtney Love as Nancy Spungen. It was only because the films producers had already decided that the role should be played by a more established actress and that is why Chloe Webb was offered the part. Courtney Love had to settle for the role of one of Sid and Nancy’s New York friends Gretchen. It is also known that the clothing that both Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb wore throughout the shoot of the film was never cleaned so both could reenact the physical conditions that Sid and Nancy must have continually lived under, which included the constant smell of stale vomit and alcohol upon their clothing. Now that’s method acting folks! The rendition of Sid’s “My Way” is actually Gary Oldman’s own vocal performance being used in this famous scene.