Sid and Nancy

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

12 October

Sid Vicious arrested, 1978

On this day in 1978, Sid Vicious, the former bassist with the punk rock band The Sex Pistols, was arrested for the murder of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen. The two of them had been staying at the Chelsea Hotel. Vicious had woken up, groggy from a night of heroin-taking, to find his girlfriend dead from a knife wound. “I stabbed her but I never meant to kill her,” he later told police, though he also claimed that she had fallen onto the knife. Vicious, born John Simon Ritchie, was 21 and just over three months later he was dead himself, from a heroin overdose from drugs procured by his mother (and possibly administered by her too). Vicious wasn’t much of a bass player – in fact he’d not really played on the Sex Pistols’ album, Never Mind the Bollocks – but he was a fast learner (he picked up the bass one speed-fuelled night, using a Ramones album as tutor). And he had punk charisma. Until Spungen’s death he had been building a solo career, playing with members of The Clash, The Damned and the New York Dolls. Who knows whether he could have parlayed what he had into a durable career. Would he even have wanted to? He’d told a newspaper in 1977 “I’ll probably die by the time I reach 25. But I’ll have lived the way I wanted to.” If punk, according to the Sniffin’ Glue fanzine, “died the day the Clash signed to CBS” (25 January 1977), then Vicious’s death was the final nail in its coffin.

Sid and Nancy (1986, dir: Alex Cox)

A kind of punk Bonnie and Clyde, Sid and Nancy was director Alex Cox’s highly anticipated follow-up to his cult item Repo Man. It also marked the arrival of another cult item – Gary Oldman, playing Sid Vicious, all loose limbs and dangling sneer. As the title suggests, it focuses on the relationship between the doomed pair, using them as a key to understanding the whole punk thing. Lack of affect being one of its key hallmarks. No Future and No Feelings. This makes anything using punk as a springboard a hard sell, to be honest, and the big question to ask about Cox’s film is: just how much of a fan of punk was he? Does he see it as a moment of intense energy that was necessary and deliberately unlikeable? Or as a project that never really seized its moment? The same questions can be asked about Vicious – holy fool, or just fool? If Oldman is going for the former, Cox is skewing towards the latter, the director’s Vicious being a scenester more interested in the rock lifestyle than rock music. So when a groupie with a bag of heroin and an already developed habit turns up (Chloe Webb, whine turned up to 11, face set to bulldog), he’s hook, line and sinker. A punk film about punk characters, Sid and Nancy eschews heroism, romanticism, Hollywood boosting, it’s dark (cinematography courtesy of Roger Deakins), bleak and probably overdoes the junk-injecting scenes. But it’s no advert for the drug lifestyle. In fact it’s probably as good a recruiting sergeant for the nine-to-five as there’s been in recent decades. They did it their way.

Why Watch?

  • Gary Oldman in the first of his great roles
  • The great Roger Deakins is cinematographer
  • A soundtrack including the Clash, Pogues, Black Sabbath, Beethoven and KC and the Sunshine Band
  • Look out for Slash, Courtney Love, Iggy Pop

Sid and Nancy – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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