Saturday, 25 February 2017

Reflections on ... Sid and Nancy (1986)

/ Top: Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb as Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. Bottom: the genuine articles. Just to confuse things, I'll be alternating photos of Oldman and Webb and the real Sid and Nancy throughout this post! / 

From the Facebook events page:

Lobotomy Room Goes to the Movies is the FREE monthly film club downstairs at Fontaine’s bar in Dalston devoted to Bad Movies We Love (our motto: Bad Movies for Bad People), specialising in the kitsch, the cult and the queer!

Considering February is the month of Valentine’s, we’ll be embracing a romantic theme with … Sid and Nancy (1986)! Hey! It’s a love story! (Well, director Alex Cox himself describes the film as “a horrific love story”. Its original title was going to be Love Kills). It outlines the doomed tragicomic “amour fou” between punk’s Romeo and Juliet: Sex Pistols’ bassist Sid Vicious and his heroin-addicted groupie girlfriend Nancy Spungen … and let’s just say it all ends messily.

So – why not throw on a black leather jacket, stick a safety pin through your nostril and join us on 22 February for a quiet night with Sid and Nancy?

Added incentive: in honour of Valentine’s Day, Fontaine’s is being sponsored all month by the fancy French raspberry liqueur Chambord! So there will be special offer cocktails on the night – and they will be pink!

Doors to the basement Bamboo Lounge open at 8 pm. Film starts at 8:30 pm prompt. Grab a cocktail and come down early! I'll be playing punk music and vintage erotica on the big screen before the main feature.

/ "I'll never look like Barbie. Barbie doesn't have bruises." Chloe Webb as Nancy Spungen /

Happily, we had another full house downstairs in the Bamboo Lounge of Fontaine’s on 22 February for my presentation of Alex Cox’s confrontational 1986 biopic covering the whirlwind, drug-fuelled and ultimately homicidal 19-month love affair between Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious (10 May 1957 - 2 February 1979) and downtrodden groupie Nancy Spungen (27 February 1958 - 12 October 1978). It was great to see so many new faces. And the screening was appropriately rowdy and boozy! Well, until the film’s despairing closing scenes – when everyone was so rapt and hushed you could hear a pin drop.

Sid and Nancy was a key film for me as a teenager (I taped it from cable TV onto VHS and watched it so many times I could probably recite screeds of dialogue from memory!).  Until Wednesday night, it had been a good twenty years since I last re-visited it. How great to see it’s as powerful, scabrous and disturbing as I remembered! Thirty-one years later, Sid and Nancy still packs a nasty punch. The film is like staring into a raw open wound.

/ The real Sid and Nancy (I love Sid's engineer boots) /

The early scenes set in London – covering the rise of the Sex Pistols and Sid and Nancy’s burgeoning romance – are brash, rowdy in-your-face bad taste black comedy. Once the Sex Pistols acrimoniously implode and an increasingly heroin-addicted Sid and Nancy find themselves adrift in New York (especially once they check into their squalid room at The Chelsea Hotel), the tone turns progressively, almost unbearably bleak and claustrophobic. (Bizarrely, one of the most common criticisms levelled at Sid and Nancy upon its release was that it irresponsibly glamorised heroin use. Which raises the question: what film did they watch? It depicts addiction as a nightmare!).

I love maverick director Alex Cox's weird flourishes of romantic, art-y magic realism or poetic realism or whatever you want to call it. I think that aspect confused people at the time who expected something more straightforward. For a brief period, he was a genuinely distinctive and vivid original voice in British cinema. Sadly, like leading lady Chloe Webb, in recent years Cox seems to have entirely vanished off the radar.

Not that Cox doesn’t make some jarring false notes, and Sex Pistols fans could certainly pick holes with the accuracy of certain segments. We catch a glimpse of a band meant to be X-Ray Spex belting out “Oh Bondage Up Yours” and they look wrong, wrong, WRONG. What a disservice to Poly Styrene! The fictional glam rock star Rock Head who crops up in a few scenes (who is he meant to be? Iggy Pop? Johnny Thunders?) feels terribly ersatz and unconvincing. 

To be fair, though, Sid and Nancy was never meant to be a documentary: it’s Cox’s idiosyncratic interpretation of their story, with artistic license. When it was released in ’86, Vicious had only been dead for seven years and his story was still fresh in peoples’ minds. More than thirty years later, we can watch Cox’s film more objectively and appreciate it on its own merits.

/ Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb as Sid and Nancy /

On a purely superficial level, for aficionados of punk fashion, Sid and Nancy offers a bonanza. Sure, Sid and Nancy were stoned, destructive and barely-functioning hot messes, but boy did they have outlaw style. Their wardrobes encompass studded leather bondage belts and wristbands, black leather biker jackets, the unravelling mohair sweaters synonymous with Vivienne Westwood and McLaren’s SEX shop, green nail polish, tartan, laddered fishnet tights and painted-on skinny black Levis. (Special mention must go to Nancy’s sensational gold leather micro-mini skirt. In real life Nancy Spungen seemed to sport a distinctive “gun” necklace in every photo ever taken of her; it’s weird Cox didn’t get Webb to wear a replica). I love the padlocked chain around Sid’s neck (a gift from Nancy. When Nancy lovingly puts it around his neck and clicks the lock shut, Sid says, “Cool! Where’s the key?” Nancy replies, “What key?”). 

Sid’s best accessory, though, is his starved-to-perfection skeletal body straight out of an Egon Schiele painting or Giacometti sculpture. (In later scenes Oldman pretty much entirely abandons wearing shirts. To achieve Sid’s emaciated physique, Oldman reportedly undertook such a drastic diet he was diagnosed with malnutrition at one point).

/ The real Sid and Nancy /

All these years later, the performances of Oldman and Webb still astonish. Both are hilarious in perhaps my favourite scene when Nancy takes Sid home to meet her horrified suburban family. Black tragicomedy at its finest! This was one of the early roles that launched Oldman as one of the best and most versatile Brit actors of his generation. Poor Web was every bit as exemplary as Oldman, but she never seemed to catch another good break after this and seemingly disappeared into obscurity. Read any book about punk history and Nancy Spungen is perhaps the most reviled figure of the whole era. She was profoundly troubled: diagnosed with schizophrenia at 15, expelled from multiple schools.  At 17 she’d run away to New York, supporting herself via stripping and prostitution and embraced groupie-dom (she was already "affiliated" with bands like the New York Dolls, Aerosmith, The Ramones and the Voidoids by the time she met Sid). Webb portrays the damaged Spungen with humanity and compassion. For me, Webb’s two finest moments are her junkie freak-out shouting at her mother in a phone booth ("he loves me more than you do!") and then later Nancy’s rambling, croaky monologue about a dream she’d had, delivered to an unconscious Sid next to her bed. She rasps something about “we had a little dog and we loved it … but it died and we didn’t know where to bury it … so we ate it.” It sums up their toxic love and it’s like an eerie premonition about what lies in store.  

/ Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb as Sid and Nancy/

Anyway, to introduce the screening I quickly Googled and compiled some “fun facts” about Sid and Nancy. Here are a few!

Daniel Day Lewis was short-listed for role of Sid before Oldman got it.

A young unknown Courtney Love unsuccessfully auditioned for the role of Nancy. As consolation Cox gave her a supporting role. It’s fascinating to see Love’s almost unrecognisable original pre-plastic surgery face.

Sid and Nancy was originally intended to be filmed in black and white but the financiers vetoed that idea. I think it would have felt even harsher in grainy black and white!

Cox’s original choice for the title was Love Kills right up until the time of release - when he was advised someone else owned the legal rights to that name and would sue. Calling it Sid and Nancy was a last minute compromise, but I think it works: it’s terse and it evokes Bonnie and Clyde. When it was released on video in Mexico, the Spanish title translated as Two Lives Destroyed By Drugs. My own alternative title would be Baked Beans and Champagne: The Sid and Nancy Story.

/ Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb as Sid and Nancy /

Further reading:

Read more about the Lobotomy Room film club here

Loverboy magazine ventures into the wild, wild world of Lobotomy Room 

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