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‘Sid and Nancy’ (R)By Paul Attanasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 08, 1986
Based on the romance between Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen that eventually led to their deaths (both presumably by Vicious' hand), "Sid and Nancy" is a docudrama of sorts that succeeds less as drama than as documentary. If the movie works at all, it's through the way director Alex Cox has captured not simply the physical details but the mood and feeling of a peculiar way of life.
"Sid and Nancy" opens in a New York police interrogation room, shortly after Sid (Gary Oldman) has stabbed Nancy (Chloe Webb) to death. The cops ask Sid how they met. Sid drags on a cigarette, starts his answer, and we flashback to Merrie Younge England: Sid and the Sex Pistols' lead singer Johnny Rotten (a vivid Drew Schofield), having playfully caved in the windshield of a Rolls-Royce, decide to visit their chum Linda (Ann Lambton), a dominatrix, who is hanging out with her American friend Nancy, a junkie.
Nancy uses sex the way department stores use loss leaders, and soon enough, she's a permanent part of Sid's life, bringing heroin along with her. Not that Sid needs an excuse to destroy himself -- destruction is his way. Early on, he clobbers an antagonistic reporter with his bass; later, he carves letters in his chest with a razor blade and walks through a glass door. In fact, his goofy disregard of physical well-being is his charm -- he captures Nancy's heart, for example, by banging his head against a brick wall.
"Sid and Nancy" creates character through setting, through the painstaking accumulation of physical details: the legend "NO FEELINGS" scrawled in lipstick on a mirror that reflects Sid and Nancy making love, or a woman dandling an infant sporting a pint-size, green-dyed Mohawk hairdo, or the toy pistols Sid and Nancy play with. The movie's reality is thingy, grounded in paraphernalia.
But while the attention to surface reality is true to the characters and to punk rock in general, it underlines what's superficial about the movie itself. In approaching punk, Cox has made a punk movie -- alive with anarchy, and with the "how far can we go?" humor of anarchy, but dead inside. Punk rejected the idea of a moral center, of social or artistic context, of psychological motivation, but art requires all those things -- in short, a sense that there's a living, breathing filmmaker behind the film. In a metaphysical sense, the movie never ventures outside the hotel rooms where Sid and Nancy seem to spend all their time.
Cox's approach paints the movie's stars into a corner, and the upshot is a matched set of remarkable impersonations, but not performances. Oldman captures Vicious' giddy daze and loose-limbed recklessness -- he's like a marionette with cut strings -- just as Webb finds, with her voice, the harsh singsong of naked emotional need. But both play that same note till the end, the only notes Sid and Nancy ever played. Once a junkie, always a junkie.
The result is that "Sid and Nancy" winds up a drag. The first half of the movie rides on its playfulness, on the infantile pleasure we all share in breaking things. And Cox builds in a kind of complex comedy as Sid and Nancy outrage the squares, but yearn for the satisfactions of a square life: marriage, home, family, Paris in the springtime. (The movie's most poignantly comic moment comes when Sid walks out on Nancy just before the band's American tour, and she whines, "What about the farewell drugs?") All of this is lost once the couple go into their heroin-laced tailspin. As Nancy shrieks and Sid blunders through some solo gigs and Nancy shrieks some more, the movie becomes a look at the slow (and rather dull) suicide of two addicts, and the comedy dries up.
"You've got no right to be strung out on that stuff," an attendant in a methadone clinic tells the doomed lovers. "You could be selling healthy anarchy." But it's impossible to tell whether Cox thinks the attendant is blowing hot air or if he really believes that the punk movement was some sort of blown historical opportunity.
In the same way, there are a number of surrealistic sequences toward the end of "Sid and Nancy," full of dollar bills and old newspapers floating in slow motion, that would suggest the movie is a commentary on the fleeting nature of contemporary fame. But if so, the commentary isn't sustained or developed in any way. In fact, the only thing that is sustained in "Sid and Nancy" is a tone of clinical disinterest that leaves you asking why Cox would want to make a movie about them. By the end, you know more about Sid and Nancy than you care to, and about Alex Cox, quite a bit less than you'd like. Sid and Nancy, at the Key, is rated R and contains considerable profanity, graphic violence, nudity and sexual situations.
Copyright The Washington Post