Our series on the films of the 1980s rolls on, as Tyler Coates tackles Sid & Nancy. You can find the archives of the series here.
by Tyler Coates
The biopic has always been a popular genre in American film making, and the 80s certainly produced many iconic examples of the form. Most important, possibly, was Coal Miner’s Daughter with Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn, which established the basic plot of the musical biopic: an artist is born, suffers through various trials and tribulations as a child / young adult, but eventually becomes famous and successful through hard work and determination. Eventually, the star loses all of that glory through various self-destructive behavior. It’s a well-worn device that exists in nearly all films of the genre.
And then there’s Sid & Nancy, the anti-biopic:
The 1986 film directed by Alex Cox follows the young Sid Vicious (played by Gary Oldman), the bassist for the Sex Pistols, and his tumultuous relationship with his American girlfriend, Nancy Spungen (played by Chloe Webb), which ended with his arrest for her murder at the Hotel Chelsea in 1979.
Biopics usually span an artist’s entire life, from childhood to death. Sid & Nancy begins the day that Sid met Nancy in London, right after becoming a member of the Sex Pistols. The span of time of the film is fairly short, as it focuses entirely on the main characters’ relationship, which lasted just under two years.
The real Sid and Nancy
Sid and Nancy begin the film as junkies, breaking the biopic mold wherein the artist takes the drugs after his ascent to fame. Often compared to Romeo and Juliet, Sid and Nancy instead poisoned themselves at the beginning of the story, and spent the rest of their action trying, in vain, to cleanse themselves.
Sid Vicious lacked another important trait with subjects of other popular musical biopics: he was incredibly untalented as a musician, never bothering to sober up long enough to be able to play with the Sex Pistols (and, inevitably, was only a member of the band for about a year). By the time he dated Nancy, however, he was infamous enough to embark on a solo career, which she laughably tried to manage by using her connections as a punk-rock groupie.
I’m not a fan of the Sex Pistols. I don’t think that there was much to either Sid Vicious or Nancy Spungen that was in the least bit redeemable. Yet at the same time, Sid & Nancy is one of my favorite movies, one that I watch over and over again.
Part of it may be because I’m fascinated with such troublesome relationships. I also have a tendency to follow with great interest the gossipy stories of musicians, writers, and artists of the ’60s and ’70s. But I think that on top of both of those reasons, Alex Cox’s film is a beautiful portrait of an ugly time, and it gives a contemporary audience a peek of the seedy underbelly of New York City in the late ’70s.
There is definitely a dichotomy of beauty and filth in the film. The love story itself is a troublesome one. Can one call Sid & Nancy romantic at all, considering that the pair destroyed each other and themselves? Perhaps the mysticism and mythology behind the debaucherous rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle blurs the images for the viewer, who can certainly find moments of tenderness between Sid and Nancy, possibly because Alex Cox does not judge them or treat them with too much negativity.
Of course, knowing that Sid most certainly killed Nancy in a drug-fueled frenzy, and sensing that Nancy was some sort of punk social climber skews the picture as well.
Featuring powerful and incendiary portrayals by Goldman and Webb and an intense glance at a scene most of us missed out on (and probably wouldn’t be able to remember had we partaken). Not only is it one of the more important (yet underrated) films of the 1980s, it’s perhaps one of the best biopics ever made.
MUSIC FROM SID & NANCY
“Love Kills” – Joe Strummer (mp3)
“Haunted” – The Pogues (mp3)
“Pleasure and Pain” – Steve Jones (mp3)
“Chinese Choppers” – Pray For Rain (mp3)
“Love Kills” – Circle Jerks (mp3)
“Off The Boat” – Pray For Rain (mp3)
“Dum Dum Club” – Joe Strummer (mp3)
“Burning Room” – Pray For Rain (mp3)
“She Never Took No For An Answer” – John Cale (mp3)
“Junk” – The Pogues (mp3)
“I Wanna Be Your Dog” – Gary Oldman (mp3)
“My Way” – Gary Oldman (mp3)
“Taxi To Heaven” – Pray For Rain (mp3)
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