Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
The outcome of Sid & Nancy is known before the film begins, and this fact pervades the entire film with an ever-present and urgent dread (the central conflict, largely, is the diving trajectory of the couple’s mutual depression). The title couple is trapped in an array of vices: their codependency fuels their mutual addiction to heroin, and their commitment to each other (or love) disables them from separating. The inevitable deaths of Sid and Nancy are the only logical conclusions to their behavior.
Sid & Nancy opens in the aftermath of the first of the pair’s deaths: Nancy has been found in a hotel bathroom with a fatal knife wound. Sid was with her. He is arrested, booked, and released on bail with no incriminating evidence—as the film suggests, though Nancy may have rightly been killed by Sid, she may have encouraged the action.
“Where did you meet her?” asks an interrogator, and the forthcoming bulk of the film is a flashback. In this manner of construction there is a mystery told, though we are less concerned with the particulars of Nancy’s death than of the pair’s impending and violent collapse.
Sid & Nancy, based on such recent material, is a product of the very culture it depicts. Malcolm McLaren, former manager of the Sex Pistols, is the film’s production designer. Existent material on the band (such as the documentary The Filth and the Fury) provides incidental details: a poster, baby pin earring, or hairstyle—each is found in the film. There are also sets that distinctly mirror evidenced settings. In particular, a room contains wall decorations – a poster and framed mirror – that are staged with obsessive precision according to a scene from D.O.A.: A Right of Passage.
Director Alex Cox is crucial to the material. Cox is British, firstly, and paid toll to the punk scene in his previous film Repo Man. The film occurs in alleys and decrepit bathrooms, where smears of oil, radical haircuts, and tough attitudes are requisite. The film is merely observant at times, though it is arguably clear no other director would better honor the fundamental tenets of punk. (In making-of material on Sid & Nancy, Cox is indistinguishable among the characters he films.)
Sid is Sid Vicious, notorious bassist of the Sex Pistols. There are several instances in the film where the band is playing and Sid is either disinterested, unprepared or both. It is evident he is a celebrity because of his fashion and attitude; such is the makeup of punk. Sid meets Nancy Spungen, an American groupie, through a mutual friend. The two become attached instantly and become further removed from any distraction other than drug use, which founds their demise.
Sid and Nancy are mythologized icons of contemporary romantic tragedy—they are Romeo and Juliet incarnated as punks. Their celebrity affords them amenities which they display no desire for. Several scenes, even, juxtapose the two with emblems of wealth, which they seem disinterested in. A redemptive opportunity given to Sid later in the film (an agent offers twenty thousand for three shows), and it is quickly blown. The pair is heedlessly joined, and they are too committed to overlook the nihilistic attachment that encumbers them.
There is an action at the beginning of the film which distinctly and harrowingly foreshadows the death of 90s rock icon Kurt Cobain: Courtney Love plays Nancy’s friend Gretchen, and she is seen screaming as a bodybag is strolled past her. The action secures Sid & Nancy’s mythological warning. (The documentary Kurt & Courtney thematically mimics this film with more than its title.)
Much in the same way as the forces at the helm of Romeo and Juliet, the film is divided between two operative powers (this theme is keenly mirrored in the couple’s nationalities): the first half of the film is in Britain depicting Sid’s introduction to Nancy and to heroin; the final half of the film follows the Sex Pistols’ American tour. The punk movement is largely isolated to Britain, and the band’s presence in America is seen as some sort of radical exhibition. At a show in Texas, cowboy hats strew the audience. This is not the same crowd that bought their fame.
At the point the final act of the film ensues – which occurs entirely in one hotel room – Sid has been abandoned by the Sex Pistols, and the two interact with few outside of their fellow addicts—in regard to whom Nancy acknowledges, “All my friends are dead.”
It is clear by this action that the couple’s fate was secured with their first meeting, and furthermore, the couple realizes their codependence and the nearing of their end. Frustrated, broke, addicted, and depressed, Nancy asks: “If I asked you to kill me, would you?” “I couldn’t live without ya,” Sid beacons. There is a fatal attachment between these lovers.
Brief and disjointed visions of reality recur throughout the film, as when, in a hotel room (the setting, anonymously frequent, is different with each passage), Sid tosses a lit cigarette into some nearby rubbish. The room is set aflame, and the couple watches with uninspired fascination. Sid lights another cigarette, and humorously tosses the lit match in the enveloping fire beside them.
The film employs these moments of surrealism to relay either the dissolving and momentary sobriety of the couple or their increasing distance from potential redemption. These moments gather frequency and culminate in the ending, involving Sid dancing with three kids and a boombox (the device plays hip-hop; the action suggests the end of one music scene and the introduction of another). Sid & Nancy’s final moments are quietly and appropriately poetic.
These are characters who announce their abandon of authoritative repression. As empty as their ideas may be, there is a tying and tragic underline to their desperate cry for infamy: the threat of cynicism will poison the idealism of their youth. Live fast die young and leave a good-looking corpse. The ill-fated couple, here, were but two casualties.