"Sidney is more than a mere bass player, he's a fabulous disaster. He's a symbol, a metaphor; he embodies the dementia of a nihilistic generation. He's a f...ing star." So says the manager of the seventies punk-rock band, the Sex Pistols, of bassist Sid Vicious in the movie "Sid and Nancy." In real life Sid and Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols were at the forefront of the punk movement, and for a brief moment in the seventies, the British rockers represented everything that could, and did, go wrong for a decade of youngsters brought up on sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.
The movie chronicles the tumultuously short relationship of Sid and an American groupie, Nancy Spungen. Using a partly documentary style interspersed with surrealistic dream sequences, writer-director Alex Cox ("Repo Man," "Walker") not only captures the spirit of the punk-rock era, he resourcefully explores the complex relationship between the world-famous junkie musician and his equally spaced-out girlfriend and part-time promoter. This 1986 film is a remarkable character study, but it's definitely not going to uplift one's heart or leave one dancing in the aisles. It's a singular, occasionally amusing, but most often bleak picture of life gone awry.
The film stars Gary Oldman as Sid and Chloe Webb as Nancy. They not only play the characters, they become the characters. Seldom do we find two actors who so thoroughly throw themselves into their parts. It was Oldman's first starring job, and it is only since this 1986 portrayal that we have come to know him for a string of offbeat roles. It's easy now, perhaps, to see Oldman's Sid as just another variant of the actor's bizarre movie types; but if one looks beyond the current Oldman stereotype, one can see that the actor was not just playing a part. He is, in fact, the embodiment of the Sid Vicious persona, whose real-life character was apparently as far out of control as he is depicted by Oldman in the movie. What's more, according to the film Sid was encouraged by his handlers to act as outrageously as possible in public in order to enhance his rebellious, anti-authority, nonconformist image. Certainly, he had nothing else going for him--precious little musical talent and absolutely no work ethic. In fact, Sid is shown throughout the film in an almost perpetual state of drug and alcohol-induced stupor.
Chloe Webb parallels Oldman's performance as Nancy, the young woman as crazy as Sid is. When he first meets her, she's a music groupie who has just been thrown out by another rocker. Sid proves himself to her by bashing his head against a wall. Then, feeling sorry for her in one of his sporadic tender moods, Sid loans her money to buy them drugs, which she promptly steals, presumably both the money and the drugs. Yet the very next time they meet, they see in one another a mutual attraction probably based on mutual need. Or mutual madness. They are both children unable to take of themselves or one another.
The plot is told in flashback during a police interrogation of Sid after he is found in a hotel room with Nancy's knifed, blood-soaked body on the floor. Her death was eventually ruled an accident. The pair's relationship, again according to the film, was short and not very sweet. The movie doesn't generate much story line, relying, instead, on a string of seemingly random incidents to bring the characters to life. One of the most telling scenes occurs late in the film when the pair are in America on tour and visiting Nancy's family. Although both Sid and Nancy are trying to be on their best behavior, it is clear that Nancy's folks are embarrassed by them and want them to leave as soon as possible. What isn't made entirely clear is how two young people like Sid and Nancy came to be as valueless as they are depicted here. It is implied that they are children of their age, people introduced into a world increasingly devoid of moral values, but it isn't enough for us to feel sorry for them or to condemn the whole climate of the time. Most other young people made it through the sixties and seventies without falling into the degeneracy of the worst punk rockers. So, I suppose rather than trying to draw any lessons from the film, we should just accept it as a turbulent and often ugly portrait of lives gone exceptionally bad.
Ironically, the film's strongest point--it's relentless kinetic energy--may also be its downfall for some viewers. The characters begin and end in the same place, with little personality change, all the while yelling, cussing, screaming, shooting up, making love, and living like pigs. By the film's conclusion, the two are so debilitated by drugs they aren't even able to fulfill the sexual conditions of their relationship. After nearly two hours of manic activity, the viewer may be justified in being more than a bit overwhelmed by it all, exhausted, and not wanting to watch the film again any time soon. It doesn't, however, detract from the initial, highly charged experience.
The movie's image quality is OK but far from superior. The overall picture is fair in definition, slightly bright and dark, with only a little noticeable grain. Moire effects, wavering lines and such, are thankfully absent from most frames. MGM make the screen size available in both its original ratio, here rendered as approximately 1.74:1 enhanced, and in a pan-and-scan ratio on reverse sides of a two-sided disc. The modified pan-and-scan blowup fills the television screen by cutting out about 20% or so of the screen image left and right. As usual, this sometimes means that primary characters wind up speaking to other characters' noses that are just poking out of the side of the screen. I understand there are still a number of viewers who prefer this situation rather than seeing black bars at the top and bottom of their screen. Given such buyers, offering the two formats is still a good, if seldom-extended compromise.
The two-channel audio is reproduced via Dolby Stereo Surround, which synthesizes a good, strong monaural signal for the rear speakers, filling the room with much musical ambiance. In the front the signal is very wide, with excellent bass and dynamics.
Unhappily, there is next-to-nothing on the disc except the film. English is the only spoken language. French and Spanish are provided for subtitles. And there are thirty-two scene selections and a widescreen theatrical trailer. Nothing else. Not even MGM's usual informational booklet insert is here, just a one-page title flyer and chapter index.
When the Sex Pistols broke up, Sid could not make it on his own, and the couple spiraled downward into drugs and despair. Several months after Nancy's death, Sid died of a heroin overdose on February 2, 1979. The film version of their brief, stormy life together does not glorify Sid or Nancy, nor does it condemn them in particular. Rather, the movie takes us on a rocky, sometimes funny, sometimes annoying, often heartbreaking ride through their lives. Rated R for partial nudity, sex, profanity, and violence, "Sid and Nancy" is not your average biographical film.