Thursday, February 17, 2011

Sid and Nancy

Most movies about a doomed romance go through great lengths for the audience to sympathize with their tragic lovers, often presenting them as likable if fatally flawed people who mean well but are brought down by outside circumstances and fate (think Romeo and Juliet, lovers who could be together if their families weren't feuding). Sid and Nancy (1986) goes in the opposite direction by placing wholly repulsive and morally repugnant characters at the center and showing how their relationship destroyed them both. It's not tragedy so much as documentation.

Before I really got into music in college, I had a passing knowledge of the Sex Pistols and Sid Vicious. I knew he had been a violent, angry young man but had always thought he was one of those tragic musicians whose career and life were cut short by the excesses of rock. When I discovered he couldn't actually play bass and had only been hired for his notoriety on the punk scene, the news stunned me. What was his actual legacy?

I enjoy the music of the Sex Pistols and respect their role in punk rock, but I believe they might have lasted longer had Glen Matlock remained with the band or if they actually replaced him with a competent musician. As the film depicts it, Vicious caused the Sex Pistols to implode because of his love for drugs and Nancy Spungen.

Shortly after joining notorious punk group, Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) meets Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb), an American junkie living in England. The two soon begin a relationship based off their addictions to each other and heroin, drawing the ire everyone from singer Johnny Rotten (Andrew Schofield) and the rest of the band to Nancy's family. After a tour in the U.S. destroys the band, Sid tries to launch a solo career, but he and Nancy sink further into their own destructive, little world.

The lovers-against-the-world trope has been done a million times before, but Sid and Nancy is one of the few movies to depict the romantic relationship as destructive and poisonous unto itself. We're not rooting for them to get together; we want them to split up before someone gets killed (which if you're familiar with the band or Vicious, you know how true that turns out).

Sid and Nancy are characters impossible to root for. Sid stands on the brink of a rock stardom future, but he's self-destructive, beats up people (including Nancy) and ruins every chance he gets. Nancy is a groupie who clings to any star and gets Sid hooked on heroin. I was reminded of the killers from In Cold Blood; alone, they're bad enough, but together they form the perfect destructive personality. Director Alex Cox frames together often, the rest of the scene around them a blur. When they're together, nothing else matters.

Cox begins filming the movie almost like a documentary. The early concert footage feels like actual recordings from the day, the pubs and clubs authentically grimy and gritty. Later, as Sid and Nancy slide further into dependency and addiction, Cox introduces weird hallucinations and images. What began as a docudrama transforms into a nightmare.

The performances certainly are daring and uncompromising. Both Oldman and Webb are unafraid to look rotten, scummy, and unglamorous. This really was a star-making role for Oldman; he's unrecognizable. It's so weird to look back and realize he would later go on to play Commissioner Gordon in the most recent Batman movies. He's so wild and unrestrained here.

Sid and Nancy is not fun. It's an unblinking look at two destructive people who were both the perfect and the worst match for each other. They may be lovers, but it's not love they share.

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