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1986 was not a good time to make a film which attempted to capture the Punk spirit. Deep into second-term Reagan/Thatcher, American and British pop culture were infected with cynicism, hopelessness, immobility. So when Alex Cox came over with his swagger and boyish enthusiasm and tried to instigate a bit of healthy anarchy, what happened? Everybody sneered. Well, I did, and I should have known better. Certainly Sid & Nancy has improved with time, or maybe it is only now that we can strip away the problems of the biopic form to distill the essence of what is on offer here: an encapsulation of the joyous chaos that British Punk let loose; a disquisition on how black humour turns into black self-destruction; a love story in the oldest sense— as archetypal and star-crossed as Romeo and Juliet. When Sid says, “I couldn’t live without you,” it is no spooning cliché but a deadly statement of intent.
Punk was in the air during the filming of Sid & Nancy, in that most degraded of mediated forms, the anniversary. Early in 1986, the U.K. style media went overboard in a series of “ten years after” articles—fashion shoots, spectacular recantations, comparisons with the present—which not only diminished the present but tarnished the past. It was easy then to see Sid & Nancy as another tacky rewriting of history, but that was to apply a British standpoint, and in the end, Sid & Nancy is not a British film.
Consider the structure. The bulk of the film is a classic flashback. It begins in New York, returns to London, then brings us back to the U.S. for its final images of Manhattan and the breakdancing black kids who rightly shame Sid for being stuck up. This is as it should be. Of all the Sex Pistols, Sid was the most American: with his dysfunctional/divorced parenting, in his decision to live in the New York of London rock dreams, in his ability to live up to his violent, cartoony name.
Sid is a myth because he fulfilled the classic teenage archetype that James Dean initiated: Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse. Unlike Johnny Rotten, who withdrew into irony and sarcasm, Sid just went for it: “I probably will die in six months, actually,” he told Roberta Bayley in February 1978. In fact, it took a year. There is a horrible purity here, the purity of immortality. “I don’t see Johnny Rotten on a T-shirt on the Lower East Side,” Malcolm McLaren once said to me. “I see Sid all the bloody time.”
Sid & Nancy is a film of two halves: America and Britain. Cox is less sure of the British context, and it is here that he runs into the perennial biopic problem: Are you recreating history? If you’re not, what are you doing? If you are, how do you do it well enough so that nitpickers, of whom there are many, do not complain? The problems are confounded when the subject you are taking on is very well documented, highly contentious and within recent memory—eight to nine years, in this case.
Thanks to original Pistol associate and assistant art director Deborah Wilson, there is enough period detail and insider knowledge: the right clothes and posters, the right locations (like maîtresse Linda Ashby’s St. James flat). The true story of the Sex Pistols, however, is collapsed into a few set pieces, some of which hint at the real psychosexual dynamics of what went on, some of which degenerate into anachronisms and dippy pieties straight out of a sociological textbook.
There is a certain breezy good humour here—an often ignored element of Punk—but there is also a crudeness and a lack of real emotion: You get the feeling that Cox is coerced by facts when he (and you) wants to blast off into dreamland. Indeed, the film slips into a higher gear when the characters become detached from reality—in this case, Britain and the ersatz Pistols—and as ever, Cox does it with a joke: “I hate this fucking life,” Nancy moans. “Things’ll be much better when we get to America, I promise,” Sid replies. “We are in America,” Nancy reminds him.
The American section of the film—the second half—is a brilliantly sustained mood piece. Cox’s touch is sure here. He has enough respect for his characters to treat their mutual delusion with love and sympathy, and to chart the rejection that has brought them to this. But he’s too smart not to interject a note of politics, as ever in this film, spoken by a black man: “Smack is the great controller, keeps people stupid. When they could be smart. You guys got no right to be strung out on that stuff. YOU could be selling healthy anarchy. Long as you addicts, you be full of shit.”
Cox’s politics are romantic, but in that, they both conform to the nature of pop politics and give the down storyline a much needed lift. There’s a great moment when Sid plays Robin Hood to a hapless kid beset by thugs in a bombed-out New York landscape: “Who the hell do you think you are?” one of the bullies asks. Sid replies, “Sid Vicious,” and they scatter to cod spaghetti western music. Here is the upside of being an outlaw: You look after your own.
The film’s core relationship is handled with perception and sensitivity. It’s hard at this point in time to find anyone with a good word to say for Nancy, but there is no doubt that she and Sid loved each other. Sid & Nancy captures the almost childlike tenderness between two teens who, despite their violent, flaring nihilism, had the innocent idealism that gets bruised by life. Their relentless trajectory could only end one way. The script takes the most plausible course, that Nancy’s death was accidental, but that the pair was in such an emotional and physical tailspin that the line between intention and accident is forever blurred.
The film’s original title was Love Kills, but that would have been too cynical. As Sid and Nancy ride off into a post-industrial haze, the message is, “love conquers all.” In the film’s opening scene, there is an eerie psychic leap into the future, as Courtney Love (Gretchen) shrieks over a body on a stretcher—prefiguring the international news photos from March 1994. Such a moment could only happen through a deep understanding: Despite their ghastly end, Sid and Nancy reaffirm the classic teenage archetype: that youthful self-destruction, indeed self-sacrifice, can mean immortality. Like Peter Pan, they can never grow old.
Jon Savage is the author of England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock and Beyond (1991).