Punk had barely died when Alex Cox made SID AND NANCY, the bio-pic about the doomed love between punk rocker Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols, and his barbed-wire sweetie, Nancy Spungen. The movement was gone as a seminal force, which allowed Cox to make a film with a sense of history, but it was also recent enough in the popular memory to have the feeling of immediacy, or reportage, even. Cox, with the anti-establishment cred of REPO MAN behind him, and a self-identified sense of being an outsider made him a punk without the trappings. Perfect timing. Perfect filmmaker. Perfect actor in Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious.
That Oldman bore a passing resemblance to the symbol of the punk movement, as well as hailing from the same area of London, bolstered a performance that is both surprisingly thoughtful, unexpectedly sweet, and bracingly ferocious. It is the performance of a lifetime in his first major role. To see him later as Lee Harvey Oswald in Oliver Stone’s JFK, or as George Smiley in TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY is to realize just how good it is, something that could not have resonated with audiences at the time. He makes a filthy alley romantic, at least from the punk point of view, and anarchy, even anarchy gone wrong, as a welcome release from the prison of conformity. A reedy boy screaming his anger and ennui with a delighted abandon, he is the soft one compared to Nancy. It’s Chloe Webb’s bad luck to star opposite Oldman. He steals the movie, but Webb’s work is impressive as the truly vicious one of the pair. She spews real vitriol, unafraid of being a truly unlikable character, and by doing that becoming an object of grotesque fascination. Endless fascination. The mystery of their abiding passion is even more compelling that how Nancy died in a room at the fabled Chelsea Hotel in New York.
The story of their anti-romance has all the trappings of the traditional love story. Family and friends don’t understand. Cox makes the choice to see the world from their point of view, and it’s a stroke of brilliance, forcing the audience to take Sid and Nancy and punk as a whole on their terms. Echoes of REPO MAN’s sensibility reverberate throughout, especially in the scene of Nancy bringing Sid home to her middle-class family for Thanksgiving. One meal with them would make anyone want to drive a safety pin through his or her cheek, put on a dog collar, and head for the nearest dive.
The Blu-ray release of SID AND NANCY brings the clattering vibrancy back to the film, while the mini-docs, especially “For the love of Punk” puts the story in several perspectives, cinematic, social, even literary. “Junk Love” is a mini-bio of Sid himself, sympathetic but, refreshingly, not fawning. But it’s the film itself, seen a quarter-century on, that is remarkable. Still fresh, still gut-wrenching, still barbarously funny, it’s a modern classic.