(We here at Hammer to Nail are all about true independent cinema. But we also have to tip our hat to the great films of yesteryear that continue to inspire filmmakers and cinephiles alike. This week, our “The Curbside Criterion” continues where HtN staff can trot out thoughts on the finest films ever made. Today Brad Cook shoots up the new Criterion Blu-Ray release of Alex Cox’s beloved Sid & Nancy. )
I’ve always been fascinated by people like Sid Vicious who seem to lack any self-preservation instinct. Where Johnny Rotten created a public persona that was an exaggerated version of his private self, what you saw was pretty much what you got with Vicious. He really did seem determined to live fast, die young, and leave a pretty corpse.
Of course, Vicious had help from Nancy Spungen, a hanger-on who helped accelerate his downward spiral by encouraging his drug use. The two became locked in a damaged relationship that was arguably a murder-suicide pact, and both of them died young. The Sex Pistols were a short-lived band that broke up before Vicious died, but they helped inspire a new generation of punks in the 80s and 90s.
That’s the backdrop for Sid & Nancy, Alex Cox’s second feature film after the success of his cult hit film Repo Man. Starring Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb in the title roles, it opens near the end, in October 1978, with Vicious being questioned by the police after he found Spungen dead in their room at the Chelsea Hotel.
Cox then jumps back in time to early 1977, when manager Malcolm McLaren brought Vicious in to replace bassist Glen Matlock, despite the newcomer’s inability to play his instrument well. McLaren, who owned a clothing store called Sex at the time, was more interested in shock value, and he found the perfect combo in Vicious and Rotten (played by Andrew Schofield).
Like many other movies about famous musicians, Sid & Nancy plays a bit like a greatest hits collection as it dramatizes the Sex Pistols’ rise and fall and Vicious’s brief solo career. Spungen arrives on the scene and finds a willing partner in her self-destruction in Vicious. Meanwhile, the Sex Pistols have gained a reputation as one of the most over-the-top punk bands of their era, and they embark on a tumultuous tour of North America that ends in January 1978 with Rotten dissolving the group.
Vicious and Rotten clash many times, but the main dysfunctional relationship in the movie is the one between the title characters. Vicious and Spungen clearly love each other, but it’s a love buried deep below their damaged personalities. Watching their relationship careen from one crisis to the next is like watching a slow-motion train wreck – you know that’s where it’s headed even if you try to pretend you don’t know how their relationship ends.
As someone raised by a mentally unstable mother, I had some understanding of what the two were going through, although I’ve thankfully found myself to be genetically incapable of engaging in self-destructive behavior. The real life Johnny Rotten (real name: John Lydon) has trashed the movie, of course, but every biopic must walk a fine line between staying true to some version of history and serving the dramatic needs of its story.
That concept is on full display during Spungen’s fatal last night with Vicious. There have been many theories over the years about what happened, with plenty of people fingered as the possible real killer, but Cox reduces the events to their simplest form, presenting those moments as the inevitable conclusion of a relationship that was destined to end in tragedy.
Sid & Nancy was previously part of Criterion’s library, first on laserdisc and later on DVD. MGM released a Blu-ray in 2011 – it featured two brief featurettes, neither of which are included here. This new Criterion Blu-ray features both old and new bonus features:
- Two commentary tracks, one recorded in 1994 for Criterion’s laserdisc and the other in 2001 for an international release. The older track features Oldman, Webb, screenwriter Abbe Wool, critic Greil Marcus, filmmakers Julien Temple and Lech Kowalski, and musician Eliot Kidd. It’s more of history lesson in the way it looks back on the real events and people and tries to reconcile them with the movie. The other track has just Cox and Schofield chatting about the making of the movie. Taken together, both commentaries give a good overview of the film and its place in music history.
- England’s Glory (31 minutes; from the Criterion DVD): Created in 1987, this documentary uses behind-the-scenes footage from the making of the movie and interviews with the cast and crew, including Cox. An interesting moment occurs when the director chats with a couple real skinheads who have been recruited to serve as extras.
- O.A.: A Right of Passage (11 minutes; from the Criterion DVD): This is an excerpt from a documentary by Lech Kowalski. It’s notable for featuring concert footage as well as interviews with the real Vicious and Spungen, who are obviously high on something. It’s like watching footage of someone right before they fall asleep behind the wheel and drive off a cliff.
- Sid Vicious, 1978 (14 minutes; from the Criterion DVD): This is audio of a phone interview with Vicious conducted by photographer Roberta Bayley. It was conducted on January 19, 1978, the day after he had been rushed to a hospital in New York after falling into a coma during a flight. That date was also five days after the last Sex Pistols concert (not counting the reunions they’ve had in recent years).
- The Filth and the Fury! (3 minutes; from the Criterion DVD): An interview with the Sex Pistols from England’s version of the Today show, as depicted in the movie. Host Bill Grundy really did have no use for his guests.
- Alex Cox (24 minutes; new to this edition): The director discusses the film and its reception, as well as his career overall. It’s worth a watch as he gets into various ideas he had for Sid & Nancy, along with other interesting nuggets of information that I don’t recall hearing before.
- Sad Vacation (14 minutes; new to this edition): These are excerpts from a 2011 documentary by Danny Garcia that play a bit like a TV crime show, with an overview of Sid and Nancy’s childhoods and an in-depth examination of the night Nancy died. Various people who were around the two at the time are interviewed, including photographer Bob Gruen, author Brett Dunford, and others.
- The London Weekend Show (14 minutes; new to this edition): This was culled from a report by British TV journalist Janet Street-Porter that aired on November 28, 1976. Interviews with members of the Sex Pistols, as well as punk fans, are included. This one explores the culture and fashion of the punk movement at the time. It all seems so tame now, but back then it shocked plenty of people on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
- The original theatrical trailer, which was restored for this release.
Criterion’s usual booklet rounds out this “film class in a box.” It includes archival photos of Sid and Nancy, an essay by writer Jon Savage from 1998, and a collection of material that Cox pulled together before working on the movie. That last part ends with a quote from Vicious, so I’ll let him have the last word in this review:
“I hate films. It’s pretense, it’s lies, it’s just shit. Like, if you filmed a day in the life of me, for instance … that is the most boring thing on earth. It makes me sick to think that people will act out parts and, you know, make it all seem larger than life, just so that some crud out there can get off on some fantasy: that life is wonderful and one day…”
– Brad Cook (@BradCWriter)