Alex Cox's Sid & Nancy is a classic amour fou romance plastered over the backdrop of London's emerging punk scene of the late '70s. The film is the approximately real-life story of the life and death of Sex Pistols' bassist Sid Vicious and his soulmate, a shrill caricature of a woman named Nancy Spungen and the simultaneous rise and fall of the Pistols.
A lot can be said about the creative license Cox takes with the material, after all this was a well documented story and created a media frenzy when the Sex Pistols burst onto the scene between 1976 and 1978, but it is difficult to fault the filmmaker's attention to detail and craft in the final product. Cox was a student and aficionado of the punk scene "back in the day", and he had more than a little first hand knowledge of the experience and atmosphere surrounding this cultural watershed moment in British history, combine that with an almost encyclopeadic knowledge of cinema and and at worst you're destined for a glorious mess. Sid & Nancy, however, winds up featuring Cox's most straight-forward and linear feature in a career littered with outre classics like Repo Man and Walker.
Sid & Nancy is the story of the the titular lovers, but it is also the story of the emergence of a new cultural force that wrangled all of the outsiders into one singular maelstrom of outsider art shoved down the throats of the masses in an England in crisis. Cox's depiction of late '70s England is one of a nation on the downturn, and the only way to save it was to gather up the freaks - the punks, the teds, the sexual deviants, the junkies, the anarchists - and push them to the forefront to rip the old guard to shreds. At the time it seemed like the only way out, and the future seemed bright in a new England beyond the reach of the status quo, little did they know that the backlash would be so severe.
By the time the film was shot in 1986, the UK was under the thumb of the ultra-conservative Margaret Thatcher who, alongside her American counterpart Ronald Reagan, was aiming to quash dissent and return to a golden age that never really existed. This cultral whiplash between the setting of Sid & Nancy and the reality in which it was realized is fascinating in its cultural juxtaposition. Luckily Cox was able to sequester the setting for his film and recreate the confluence of degenerate influences that made punk in late '70s England such a revolutionary act.
As a kid who grew up in a punk scene that was already watered down from years of neglect and eventual assimilation by the Hot Topic masses of the mid to late '90s, Sid & Nancy was like a window into a simpler time for me. I was always a fan of the music, aesthetic, and attitude of the late '70s and early-mid '80s scenes (though I found the Pistols' music to be incredibly boring) and wished I could've been born in a different time. This film was like a salve that made me feel like the emotions I was having as a young nihilist were okay. Even as an anti-social youth I recognized that Sid & Nancy were no heroes, but I also understood a world that could create and nurture their particular brand of simplistic rebellion. Sid was not my hero, but he was a product of a world that wanted nothing to do with someone like him, and he reacted to that world in the only way he knew how, and I understood that struggle.
Gary Oldman's performance as Sid is easily the most accurate representation of any of the film's characters or settings. Having been a student of punk music and culture for two-thirds of my life, I can see how out of whack much of the film's depiction of this period is. Chloe Webb's Spungen is a cartoon and Andrew Schofield's Johnny Rotten is so far off the mark that it's not even funny. Perhaps the only other character that even attempts credibility is the film is David Hayman's Malcolm McLaren, the Pistols' fame-hungry Svengali. But Oldman is in top form here early in his career, foreshadowing a talent for the embodiment of outlandish outsiders that he continues to this day, thirty years later.
In the end, Sid & Nancy is a fairy tale of tragic star-crossed lovers with no where to go but down, and it remains my favorite of Alex Cox's films, even though Repo Man hews closer to my own heart. Oldman's performance combined with Cox's tender treatment of the doomed central relationship always gets me where it hurts, and I thank him for that.
I have owned Sid & Nancy more times than I care to count on home video, but this new Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection easily trumps them all. The new 4K scan, supervised by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, is gorgeous and improves upon the existing Blu-ray editions of the film by leaps and bounds. Detail in the new iteration of the film is stunning, and the is a touch brighter as well, helping to expose more shadow detail and a better contrast than ever before. The original uncompressed stereo audio is also a treat, and Criterion even adds an alternate DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround track for the audio geeks out there (I prefer the original stereo).
In terms of extras, this version blows away all of the previous versions by not only gathering many of the archival materials present on those discs, but also adding new interviews and documentary footage to the mix.
To start with, we get two audio commentaries from the dawn of the art, one from Criterion's 1994 laserdisc edition of the film featuring Abbe Wool (co-writer), Oldman and Webb, Griel Marcus (cultural historian), Julien Temple (director, The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle), Lech Kowalski (director, D.O.A.: A Right of Passage), and Eliot Kidd (musician); and a second from 2001 with Cox and Schofield. For my money, it's the former that is the most interesting, though not always the most complimentary. 1994 wasn't too far removed from the film's 1986 release, so many of the memories are still fresh, and some of the participants are still smarting from the film's effect on them.
Also included are the rest of the bonus materials from Criterion long out of print DVD edition of the film. First is the short documentary England's Glory, which mostly shows Alex Cox putting the film together and is remarkable and fascinating. It shows the dichotomy between the England being depicted and a newly nationalist fervor that had gripped the country by the mid-'80s. We also get a clip of the infamous Bill Grundy interview which ended up getting the Pistols labeled as filth by the mass media, interesting, though only of tangential import here since Sid wasn't a Pistol at this point (the interview features original bassist Glen Matlock). There are a few clips from The London Weekend Show focused on the emergin punk scene that I found fascinating as a student of this subculture. There is an interview with Cox from 2016 in which he discusses the film and its effect on him and his career as well as the immense talent involved in bringing the story to the screen. An excerpt from the 1980 doc D.O.A.: A Right of Passage shows Sid & Nancy at their incoherent worst, and clips from 2016 doc, Sad Vacation further explore the myth of Sid & Nancy and the fallout.
Criterion's presentation of Sid & Nancy wraps up with a pair of written pieces in the - thankfully - stapled booklet. The first is from punk historian Jon Savage and it explores the production of the film, while the second is a collection of writings from Cox and others that relates more to the research that went into creating the characters as they appear in teh film.
I've seen Sid & Nancy dozens of times, but Criterion's new edition almost feels like the first all over again. Highly recommended.