It’s October 12th 1978, at the Chelsea Hotel, New York City. Sid Vicious sits on the edge of a bed, shirt open, sweaty, his trademark padlock chained around his neck. The police ask him who called 911 as they take away his girlfriends body on a stretcher.
Jump back a year, and The Sex Pistols have left their mark and inflicted damage on the punk scene with their album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols. Their shows are loud, filthy and furious and attract the attention of like-minded individuals, ready to trash the system. One of those fans is an American girl called Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb), who throws herself at the band’s bassist, Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman). Vicious isn’t interested at first, but after seeing her being rejected by other punk stars, he feels sorry for her and agrees to date her, then the pair falls deeply in love. The thing is, Nancy already had a true love: heroin. She felt that there was room in the relationship for the three of them, and so Sid joined in the Ménage à trois. And so began their fall down the spiral into the pits of hell.
To say their relationship was fiery would be a colossal understatement. It was clear that Sid and Nancy loved each other very much, but there was a very thin line between love and hate; they would fight and argue all the time, violence and screaming were the norm for them. Knowing that their relationship was a short one that ended with their deaths: Nancy’s by stab wounds and Sid’s from a heroin overdose just four months after he was arrested and charged for Nancy’s death, this biopic shows their relationship as an almost Shakespearean tragedy. It is easy to write Sid and Nancy off as just a pair of hapless, vulgar junkies, but the director, Alex Cox, doesn’t allow that. Yes, they were heroin addicts, but they were also young lovers. Their ages combined were only 41 at the time of their deaths, and if that’s not a tragedy, what is?
Now, I am a massive Gary Oldman fan, and I think he and Chloe Webb are great as the titular characters, yet in my younger years, I really didn’t like this film. Perhaps it’s because Nancy is so annoying. Watching it again recently, however, and I have changed my mind. 1986 was a strange time to make a biopic about a couple and a scene that died less than ten years earlier. It didn’t feel long enough somehow; nostalgia hadn’t built up enough by then. To watch it forty years after Punk died has a very different effect. Not to say that I watched in 1986, mind you, I was only seven at the time, but even in my teens it just felt a little off.
For those of us who do remember the ’80s, it was a decade of cheesy but great pop music and cheesy but great rock music. Everything was very clean and polished, bright and bouncy (except for us goths that hid in dark corners). Thatcher was in charge of the UK and Reagan in the States; we lived in a material world and a Conservative one at that. So when Alex Cox came over with his boyish enthusiasm and tried to instil a bit of healthy anarchy, what happened? Everybody sneered. It was all too recent; people could remember it all too well to allow it to feel glamorous.
Sid and Nancy has improved with time, or maybe it is because I understand the bigger picture here, and not just view it as a Punk fan, having a hissy about what they got wrong. Cox did get a lot wrong — like, I seriously still can’t get over why they’d cast a Scouser to play John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) when that man’s voice is one of the most identifiable voices of not just Punk but pop culture, and his accent is very London. But I can now gloss over some of the problems of the biopic to concentrate on the essence of what the film really is: a snapshot of the joyous chaos that British Punk let loose; a commentary on how dark humour turns into self-destruction; a love story as classic and star-crossed as Romeo and Juliet. When Sid says to Nancy, “I couldn’t live without you,” it is not just a romantic cliché but a deadly statement of intent.
While Sid and Nancy’s relationship blooms (then implodes in on itself), the Sex Pistols go on tour and rip through the culture. This allows us to be introduced to the Scouse Johnny Rotten (Andrew Schofield) and their manager, Malcolm McLaren (David Hayman). Despite their notoriety in the Punk scene, their parts in this film are minor. That’s fine though; the film is called Sid and Nancy after all. What is fascinating about the film is that neither Sid nor Nancy are likeable at all. Individually you may pity them for being helpless and hopeless; it won’t take you long to realise that Nancy was just a groupie pretending to be something more (aren’t we all?), and you don’t have to have a trained ear to know that Sid was a terrible bassist. But together, they were something else. They were Sid & Nancy — the only couple who could make falling trash and apartment fires romantic.
Both Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb bring humanity to Sid and Nancy in their remarkable performances. Through them, their wants, desires and flaws are on display — it is a beautiful tragedy. Primarily because of Oldman and Webb, Sid and Nancy proves to be something it wasn’t expected to be: one of the great cinematic love stories.
But was it really like this? Of course, we can’t ever know what their relationship was like behind closed doors, as they are not here to tell the tale, but if John Lydon is to be believed, this biopic is wide of the mark, at least in the romance stakes. In his 1994 autobiography, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, he said the following:
To me this movie is the lowest form of life. I honestly believe that it celebrates heroin addiction. It definitely glorifies it at the end when that stupid taxi drives off into the sky. That’s such nonsense. The squalid New York hotel scenes were fine, except they needed to be even more squalid. All of the scenes in London with the Pistols were nonsense. None bore any sense of reality. The chap who played Sid, Gary Oldman, I thought was quite good. But even he only played the stage persona as opposed to the real person. I don’t consider that Gary Oldman’s fault because he’s a bloody good actor. If only he had the opportunity to speak to someone who knew the man. I don’t think they ever had the intent to research properly in order to make a seriously accurate movie. It was all just for money, wasn’t it? To humiliate somebody’s life like that – and very successfully – was very annoying to me. The final irony is that I still get asked questions about it. I have to explain that it’s all wrong. It was all someone else’s fucking fantasy, some Oxford graduate who missed the punk rock era. The bastard.
When I got back to London, they invited me to a screening. So I went to see it and was utterly appalled. I told Alex Cox, which was the first time I met him, that he should be shot, and he was quite lucky I didn’t shoot him. I still hold him in the lowest light. Will the real Sid please stand up?
As for how I was portrayed, well, there’s no offence in that. It was so off and ridiculous. It was absurd. Champagne and baked beans for breakfast? Sorry. I don’t drink champagne. He didn’t even speak like me. He had a Scouse accent. Worse, there’s a slur implied in the movie that I was jealous of Nancy, which I find particularly loathsome. There is that implication that I feel was definitely put there. I guess that’s Alex Cox showing his middle class twittery. It’s all too glib, it’s all too easy.”
Sid and Nancy is a film of two halves: America and Britain. Cox is less sure of the British context—which quite frankly is bizarre to me when, being from the UK himself, he could surely have interviewed many people who were close to the couple. It is here that he runs into the eternal biopic problem: Are you recreating history? If you’re not, what are you doing? If you are, how do you do it well enough so that those who really were there do not criticise? The problems are exaggerated when the subject you are taking on is very well documented, highly contentious and within recent memory.
While the film looks spot on — all the right locations, clothes, posters — which is likely down to Deborah Wilson, an associate of the Pistols and assistant director on the film, the story of the rise and fall of The Sex Pistols is barely touched upon. The American half of the film is more of a mood piece. The director has enough respect for his characters to treat their mutual delusion with love and empathy and highlight the rejection that both Sid and Nancy experienced in their young lives, which brought them to this. No wiser words are spoken in the film than that by a Black American:
“Smack is the great controller, keeps people stupid when they could be smart. You guys got no right to be strung out on that stuff. YOU could be selling healthy anarchy. Long as you addicts, you be full of shit.”
It’s not easy to find many people with anything nice to say about Nancy, but she was just a kid really, and a disturbed one at that. She had been deprived of oxygen during birth when the umbilical cord became wrapped around her neck. She was always a troubled child, and at just 15, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia after she ran away from school and tried to kill herself by slitting her wrists with scissors. She and Sid had a notoriously turbulent relationship, and she was dubbed “Nauseating Nancy” by the gutter press for her frequent public displays of violence and verbal abuse. But who did kill Nancy?
The film suggests that it was a suicide pact gone wrong, and this is backed by Sid’s mother, Anne Beverley, who had supplied drugs to her son and was a user herself. As reported in The Guardian, she told the journalist Alan G. Parker that she found a suicide note in this jacket which read,
“We had a death pact, and I have to keep my half of the bargain. Please bury me next to my baby. Bury me in my leather jacket, jeans and motorcycle boots. Goodbye”.
However, the pair fought regularly, and Sid was known to be violent towards Nancy, as often happens in relationships dependent on heroin, not that it’s any excuse, of course. Nancy’s death was likely an accident or perhaps a spontaneous act in the heat of the moment; whatever the case, the line between intention and accident will be forever blurred. Nancy was just 20 years old.
After Sid was arrested for her murder, he was released on bail, got into more trouble, underwent a painful detox, then overdosed when he came home from the hospital. His mother claimed that after he overdosed, he wanted more heroin so she purposely administered a fatal dose to her son because he was afraid of going back to prison and had doubts about how good his lawyers were, even though the lawyers were confident they would clear his name. However, Alan G. Parker admitted on a podcast in 2018 that he had lied about Sid’s mother delivering the fatal dose so that he could command a higher fee for his story. It makes you wonder if any of the suicide pact story was true.
Cox delivers a romantic ending to the film, having a taxi cab pick Sid up in an industrial wasteland. He sees Nancy alive in the back seat; they embrace and head off together. It is, of course, a metaphor for the fact that Sid had also died, and the pair were reunited and continuing on their journey together. As Sid and Nancy ride off into a post-industrial haze, the message reads, “love conquers all.”