Relationships can be odd things can’t they? (So I’ve been told). When you try to examine what draws two people together and what keeps them together through thick and thin it can be for the smallest and most insignificant of reasons. In fact to most people it seems to hardly matter at all, the only thing that matters is that they are still together despite having no idea of why they remain in that state. Worse still is how brutally destructive a relationship can be, the aftershocks of it reverberate far further than just the two people directly involved in it and half of the time they are so unpredictable that the damage can be due to both the success and failure of said relationship. Such is the case with Alex Cox’s ‘Sid and Nancy’, a tale of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, or at least on the surface it is.
It tells the true story of Sid Vicious, the notorious bass player of the equally notorious Sex Pistols, and his relationship with American groupie Nancy Spungen. It was a relationship fuelled by drugs and violence and ended rather appropriately and tragically when Vicious awoke one morning in New York’s Chelsea Hotel to find her dead body. Having been arrested on suspicion of murder and subsequently bailed Vicious himself died shortly afterwards from a heroin overdose at just 21 years old.
True to the live fast, die young attitude that seems to permeate the music industry Cox’s film is seeping with energy and rhythm, portraying its two title characters as renegades who almost existed outside of society itself. They seemed to watch in glee as the world went to hell around them, they didn’t care, they had each other. That ideology is personified in arguably the film’s most famous shot, the two locked in an embrace in an alleyway as garbage, thrown from the higher storeys, falls around them. On the surface the relationship seems to be one of pure sexual attraction and while the film can easily be viewed as a brief and anarchic tale of love, a closer look reveals a much more complex and ultimately more unnerving truth.
The amount of subtle nuances thrown towards the audience is astonishing and comes mainly through the two fantastic lead performances. Gary Oldman is one of the most expressionistic and versatile actors in recent cinema history (although if his breakout role is 30 years old can that really be called “recent” now?) and his role in ‘Sid and Nancy’ may be his crowning achievement. Every cell and fibre of his body is fully invested and committed to bringing Vicious to life on the silver screen. From the tiniest of mannerisms to the loudest and most obnoxious screams, everything works to cement the character as everything his reputation suggests and even more than that.
He turns such a seemingly repulsive and reprehensible character into an unflinching look at fame, aggression and juvenile glee. He retains the more loathsome characteristics of Vicious but also underpins them with an unexpected injection of sympathy. From his upbringing to the fact that he was famous before he had even found his own identity, Oldman’s performance allows us to understand the position he finds himself in. Cox’s script is able to complement this kind of performance, never asking us to like Vicious, just to understand him.
As a result of that we get a better understanding of the relationship that lies at the centre of the film. Neither of these two really lived long enough to decide what they wanted to do with their lives, all they knew was that their fame seemed to rely on continually being as fucked up as possible. So can we really blame them for living the way they did? One can never say that neither of them at least tried to better themselves or improve one another. Nancy pushed her boyfriend to try harder, wanted to ensure that he was given his due within the band and really make something of him. Not to say that she was exploitative, the film makes that clear, she acted this way because she loved him and wanted what was best for him.
I do not hesitate to apply the word “love” to the relationship portrayed in ‘Sid and Nancy’ because for all the fallout, destruction and loathing, those two idiots needed each other. Beneath the pain and anger is a deep dependence for each other, with Vicious as a boy who was still a man, in need of self-esteem and self-control and Nancy wanting someone to care for and depend upon her. Beneath the drugs and bewilderment there is a sense that they were truly meant for each other and their mad and quick trail of destruction was permeated with moments of blissful tenderness.
Credit there goes to Alex Cox, whose story of rage and fury contained a violent and damaged relationship at its centre, and somewhere within that mess of pain and confusion Cox was able to single out the more tender and intimate moments. That story at the centre of meticulous and focussed and like the real story could have flowered into something beautiful if not destroyed by the spiralling storm of drugs and fame around them. You really get a sense of tragedy and loss lying at the heart of the film.
You feel that loss because, almost shockingly, by the end of the film you realise you have come to know these characters quite well. Whether you love them, hate them or simply understand them there is no denying that by the time the credits roll you feel as if you have witnessed the snapshot that represented their lives and now an abrupt and empty space is left where they were. ‘Sind and Nancy’ tells a very conventional story and shrouds it in anarchy to make it look unfamiliar enough to be engaging. The two people being portrayed are indeed very different from us, but at their core lie the same dreams and the same pain that we all share.