Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sid and Nancy (1986)

Pretty vacant

I was hesitant about Sid and Nancy, because I approached the film with little or no knowledge of the two principals or of the Sex Pistols' music (I tried; it never did anything for me).

But then I thought, this is the rare case where I'm the average viewer of a pop music film. So I decided to go with that perspective.

What Happens:

I'm recognizing a pattern here. Just like other biopics Selena and Notorious, Sid and Nancy starts at the end. We're in New York, and police have responded to a 911 call at the Hotel Chelsea. They find Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) in a near catatonic state, and a dead woman on the bathroom floor. Blood is everywhere. The police arrest Sid and take him in for questioning. "Who is she?" they ask him. "Where did you meet her?"

"At Linda's," he responds and we flash back to the beginning of our story, a year earlier.

Sid is the bass player for UK punk sensations the Sex Pistols. He likes to hang out with his lead singer, Johnny Rotten, and do things like break out the windshields of Rolls Royces. They go to Linda's house. She's a dominatrix who doesn't mind if the boys spray paint on the walls of her very nice place. She's got a friend named Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb), an American groupie and heroin runner / addict.

Neither John nor Sid is exactly taken with Nancy right away, but she hangs around anyway. After a busted drug deal, Sid takes pity on her and offers to buy from her, though he is not a user. She takes his money and runs, but they meet again later after her druglord boss has abandoned her. They get high and have sex. In the morning Nancy, who knows the drill, gets up to leave, but Sid asks her to stay.

And so begins their courtship. They get high together, yell at each other, and generally cause Sid to stop focusing on his job. This changes when the Pistols set off for an American tour. The band, knowing Nancy is bad news, refuse to allow her to come on tour. Sid and Nancy fight about it, and he leaves.

In no small part thanks to Sid's erratic behavior (he can barely stay upright on stage, he keeps hurting himself, both accidentally and purposefully) the tour doesn't go well, and the band breaks up when the drummer and guitarist both quit. Sid goes back to Nancy. They resume their old ways, and they head to New York to try to get clean and strike up a solo career for Sid.

Things don't go well. He gets some gigs, but they're poorly-received, and he's not really committed to making it work anyway. Both Sid and Nancy start using again and begin a slow descent into drug-addled vacancy. The two begin to spend all of their time in the hotel, living in squalor. They alternately talk of a suicide pact and of getting clean. During an argument one night, they scream at each other, then tussle. They go to sleep together. Nancy is bleeding. She wakes up in the middle of the night and the sheets are soaked in her blood. She staggers into the bathroom, collapses, and calls Sid's name before dying.

Now we're back where we started. Sid makes bail and asks the cops where he can get some good pizza. He goes to a pizza place seemingly in the middle a huge desolated lot. He eats, pushes the table over, and leaves. Some black boys are dancing to KC and the Sunshine Band's Get Down Tonight and Sid joins them. Then, Nancy shows up in a cab and he gets into it with her and they drive away.

What Really Happens:

I had a lot of problems with this movie. It's not necessarily a bad movie. The production values are good, something you can't take for granted with '80s films. It's very watchable. Where I get hung up is in the message/purpose of the film. Is it a biopic, a tragic love story, or a cautionary tale? The film doesn't commit fully to any of the three. It's not really a biopic, because it only covers one year in the subjects' lives. The problem with it being a love story (probably the most common way the movie is thought of) is that the story is less about love than it's about co-dependence. Before drugs became a part of their lives, there was no action or interest between Sid and Nancy. They spend more time fighting in the film than they do showing affection for one another. And while by virtue of its existence the film serves as a cautionary tale against drug addiction, I'm not convinced that was at all the filmmaker's intention. Instead of condemning, the film seems to take a little too much glee in the bad behavior and the nihilism of its subjects.

Furthermore, neither character is remotely likable, which I'm guessing was purposeful, since neither seemed to be all that likable in reality. But we need some reason to care about them, and the film never really provides that. Sid doesn't seem to care about anything. He has no real talent (even as a bass player) or appeal. He's a blank slate. Nancy is a shrill opportunist. We don't know how they ended up where they are, or what they're rebelling against, why the punk aesthetic appealed to them so much. The only glimpse we get of either's past is a brief visit to Nancy's grandparents' house. They're Jewish and wealthy, and thus Nancy just seems like the family fuck-up. In reality she probably had some serious unaddressed mental illness. Sid too.

But let's look at the four categories for biopics and see how the film fares there.

1) Believable Actors
Both Oldman and Webb had very short resumes when they were cast in Sid and Nancy, but what different paths they took! Their performances in the film are actually good precursors for their later careers. Gary Oldman is amazing. He embodies Sid Vicious completely, for what that's worth. Chloe Webb, on the other hand, is wholly unimpressive. In many scenes, she throws subtlety to the wind. Part of it is the way Nancy is written, so writer/director Alex Cox is partly to blame, but in many scenes her acting choices are downright distracting. The result of her overacting is that her character is never quite sympathetic and thus we don't really care what happens to her. All of the other actors do fine jobs, especially Andrew Schofield as Johnny Rotten. But Webb is a dealbreaker.

2) Truth
It's well-documented that Sid and Nancy plays it fast and loose with the truth. Even Wikipedia, of all places, calls it a "fictionalized account." I have a couple of problems with this. One is that most people watch biopics and take everything as gospel truth. The other is that the truth was more compelling than the fiction the film creates. Sid and Nancy were not only co-dependent, they were also mutually abusive of one another. The ending, with Sid getting in Nancy's cab and driving away, is a symbolic approach, but ends up glossing over the tough-but-compelling reality. In "real life," after making bail (thanks to Sex Pistol manager Malcom McLaren) Sid spent the next few months trying to fulfill his side of the suicide pact with Nancy. On different occasions he took an overdose of methadone, slit his wrists, and jumped out a window. Finally, about five months after Nancy's death, he succeeded. Assisted by his mother, he took what many believe to be a purposeful overdose of heroin.

I don't buy Sid and Nancy as a punk rock Romeo and Juliet, mostly because it seems insulting to the latter, but Sid's suicide is a vital part of the story. It completes it. Plus, the hopeful, glossed-over ending doesn't match with the nihilism of the rest of the film, nor that of its subjects.

3) Defining Moments
All good pop music stories have clear defining moments. The story of Sid and Nancy has four: Their meeting, the demise of the Sex Pistols, their drug holiday, her death, and his death. The film depicts them all save the latter. I wish more time had been spent on the Sex Pistols and what really went down with their break-up. In total maybe 15 minutes of the film are spent on the band. In comparison, the final drug holiday descent is given 25 straight minutes. And the film lingers on that crucial moment - Nancy's death - a little too long. It's almost like a snuff film.

4) Musical Performances
You might guess from the paragraph above that music is by far a secondary concern in the movie. As such, musical performances are in short supply. We see the Pistols perform about four times, with brief snippets of them doing Anarchy in the UK, No Feelings, God Save the Queen, and a cover of the Monkees' (I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone. Sid's solo career gets one showpiece, a disturbing dreamlike sequence where he does his cover of Frank Sinatra's My Way and ends up opening fire on his audience and killing many of them, including Nancy.

Though the lack of music is disappointing, I suppose it's fitting that the film spends most of its time on bad behavior and drugs over music, because that was obviously Sid's priority as well.

Questions and Comments:

I'm trying not to be a square or an old fogey with this, but even after watching the film and reading up on Sid Vicious, I'm still at a loss as to why he was so intriguing to people. I'm even trying to reinhabit the dark worldview I sporadically held in my teens and early twenties, and I still don't get it. As I said before, he wasn't intelligent, he wasn't talented, he stood for nothing, and he wasted his life. Some say he embodied the spirit and attitude of punk, but I think there are many other heroes who did it better, like maybe Joey Ramone or Joe Strummer.

On that note, I love punk music, but I think the lifestyle of the late-'70s British punks was so hypocritical. Here's this "we-don't-give-a-fuck" movement that requires a ton of effort to participate in. You don't wake up with a mohawk or your hair spiked with egg whites or died green. You have to pony up for the leather jackets and put the saftey pins in them yourself. And in other ways these early British punks were no different than hippies. They slept in communal situations and didn't bathe all that much. And money was not a concern, especially not for the Sex Pistols who lived a rebellious lifestyle while their record label and manager funded them. It's all kind of bullshit really. The film addresses the ephemeral and phony nature of the aesthetic ever so briefly when at one of the Pistols' gigs a punk tells his friend that he "ain't gonna be a punk no more." He says he wants to be a rude boy (a Jamaica-inspired trend focused on ska music) instead.

The film brings up a lot of questions about domestic abuse. A woman's murder at the hands of her lover is nothing new in abusive relationships. And though it's more likely that both parties contributed equally to their demise, the film makes a strong case for Nancy as a villain. She introduces Sid to heroin and helps distance him from his one positive outlet, the Sex Pistols.

In his book Killing Yourself to Love, Chuck Klosterman visits the Hotel Chelsea. Nothing much comes of it, but in the book he reports that Sid once told his mother he found sex "boring." The film actually depicts this subtly in a couple of ways. The first night the two meet, Nancy snuggles up to Sid and he brushes her off. Later, in the middle of their drug-addled final days, Sid asks, "How long has it been since we fucked?" Neither knows, and they briefly discuss trying it, but they're both too inert to make it happen. This can be a commentary on addiction, but it also says something about their relationship, namely that it was far from a traditional love affair.

The film only hints at the role Sid's management (Malcom McLaren) and record company had in his demise, but it's undoubtable that they enabled him. When Sid and Nancy are on their drug holiday it's never clear who's funding it, but given the amount of money Sid still had, he must have been still getting regular support from the company. It was in their best interest to have him embody the punk lifestyle, but in they end they just helped one of their assets destroy himself.

Am I the only one who wondered what became of the couples' cat, Socks, after Nancy's murder?

According to the Internet Movie Database, Chloe Webb had only two professional acting gigs before Sid and Nancy. One was an episode of Remington Steele. The other was an episode of Mary Tyler Moore's failed 1985 sitcom Mary.

Jack Klompus, Morty Seinfeld's Del Boca Vista nemesis on Seinfeld shows up as the manager of the Hotel Chelsea. The actor's name is Sandy Baron.

A pre-plastic surgery Courtney Love is in the movie too, in a role so small it could be called a cameo. She probably would have been a better choice to play Nancy than Webb was.

In Conclusion:

The combination of unclear purpose, miscast leading lady, and glossing-over of the truth sinks Sid and Nancy. One even wonders if it was a film that needed to be made in this form. I can't help but think a documentary would have served the story better.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...
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Unknown said...

I wondered what happened to the cat too! That's how i found this blog review. It was well enough in that the film was fictional, and did make nancy spungen out to be a villain. She was an emotionally disturbed young woman in real life, it is believed a traumatic birth caused this. I agree about vicious not being of interest. Have you read Nancy's mother's biography? If not, please do! It's the closest account to the truth. ♡fellow punk fan & cat lover.