Five: Sid & Nancy, videotapes, tragic romance, and The Artist’s Responsibility

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Gary Oldman doesn’t like Sid & Nancy. He and the director, Alex Cox, don’t seem to like one another at all, actually. Cox’s issue with his once-lead actor seem to have to do with his objections to Oldman trashing the movie, which, other than Repo Man, is Cox’s strongest film. Oldman, in response to questions about S&N has, on several occasions, stated that he dislikes the movie, he dislikes his work in it, and he strongly dislikes the subject it portrays: the downfall of Sid Vicious, a formidable member of the iconic (if you’re into punk) band The Sex Pistols, and his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen.

  • Sid & Nancy’s ranking on the Oldometer: 7/10
  • Gary Oldman character quality: Sid Vicious wasn’t a good guy, and I can’t speak as to whether or not the movie glorifies his existence. Still, despite his complaints about the movie, Oldman turns in one of his most celebrated performances here, and I think his interpretation of Vicious as pathetic and child-like is fantastic. Despite sinking into the mind-numbing representation of a guy who can’t even tell when he’s in over his head, Oldman is both hilarious and occasionally heartbreaking. (Also, he uses the phrase “noddy blinkums” which I don’t think I’ve ever heard before in my life, and I can’t stop laughing about it.)
  • Does Gary die in this one? Yep. Well, we don’t see it happen, but it happens…

To cut to the chase: Nancy, an American, and Sid, the infamous Brit punk-rocker who honestly lacked any talent visible to yours truly unless you count a strange F-you charisma, found each other, tried to heal their glaring brokenness by linking up, and spent most of their time together spiraling into heavier and heavier drug use (and/or fighting). The troubled couple finished themselves off when Sid stabbed Nancy in the basement of the Chelsea Hotel in New York, and Sid met his maker a little while later thanks to the heroin that Nancy had once introduced him to (so suggests the movie; I haven’t done any research whatsoever into the facts of their story aside from a quick glance at wikipedia and a spin of my old copy of Never Mind the Bollocks, so I’m just going off of what Alex Cox has chosen to depict).

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Spungen up that attention.

I have always had mixed thoughts on this movie. I saw Sid & Nancy for the first time when I was about 15; I was going through a phase (one of many) in which I was consuming as much literature as I could about independent film and its evolution. Obsessive freak that I was, I did things like pour over the TV guide, looking for things I needed to see, and IFC, a relatively new channel at the time, presented a glut of the films I was told were essential viewing. I unfortunately did NOT have cable access (so why was I looking at a TV guide? Lord knows), so I enlisted my friend Emily, who lived several states away at this time, to record Sid & Nancy (a Very Important Movie, my research told me), as well as a host of other random things that I couldn’t get ahold of, like the BBC’s Blackadder and Mike White’s Chuck & Buck. She complied, and shipped me my requests via postman ON VHS.

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When you realize you have to return some videotapes.

I had to pause to contain my laughter just now. Hadn’t thought about that in awhile.

I can still see my best friend’s incredibly distinctive handwriting on the VHS label. Despite holding onto this copy for a long time (probably until I went to college and finally had to trash the thing), I had not attempted a second viewing until this week. While I’m still strangely enchanted and floored by aspects of it just as I was at 15, I can point my finger closer to what I think its issues are now.

Sid & Nancy doesn’t know if it wants to romanticize its subjects or show the gritty, sad reality of their last days together. It spends an awful lot of time and effort parading the nastiness of the pair’s constant drug use, but it also makes no bones about playing into the appeal of its subjects as star-crossed lovers, even though it might be said that Vicious and Spungen rearranged, criss-crossed, and eventually threw their stars away on their own.

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Caught in a Vicious Cycle, amirite?!

Maybe it would be too hard to stick to either perspective;  if you’re going to put in the time and resources to make a film about someone, you have to give your characters a humanizing element. As we know, no one person lives on the black and white plain of morality, so in a way I appreciate that S&N never cracks down on Sid or Nancy by holding them fully accountable for their recklessness. Still, Vicious is a legend to some and an infamous murderer/destroyer of bands to others, and it is dangerous to recreate a person like that without weighing in.

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To the Drug-mobile!

Cox and Oldman present Sid as being a pretty disinterested musician, but a personality with some promise, and a part of a band just on the cusp of major success (sort of?). Once Nancy comes on the scene and takes up with him, she brings drugs (which, let’s face it, whether or not this is true, Vicious would have eventually found anyhow) and her passionate but untested and tremendously loud (see: annoying) opinions along with her.

She’s a little bit of a Yoko, making demands on Sid’s behalf, insisting that she accompany the band everywhere. Though the Pistols leave her behind when they leave for their American tour (“But what about the goodbye drugs, Sid? SIIIIIIIIIIIIIID!!!!!!”– Nancy on the subject), it doesn’t matter– Nancy is impossible for Sid to shake, even though he’s not aware or articulate enough to express it. Her absence makes Sid as useless as her presence would have, and eventually the band severs as a result. Mind you, Sid was a complete jackass before he and Nancy met, but he’s times ten with her in his life. Reunited, the two of them party in Paris and eventually move on to New York, where Nancy promises to manage him and make him a star.

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When you just want to go noddy blinkums, but there’s anarchy to be done.

As the story goes, Nancy scores a couple of shows but Sid bombs hard because he is drug addled to the point of being incapable of performing. After several lame-o performances, he concludes his engagement by singing to an empty room, so wasted that he spends his time on stage stumbling around and reading his song lyrics from a piece of paper. The movie never makes Nancy the villain of the picture, thankfully, nor does it shy away from Sid’s inability to take responsibility for anything, rather it insists that the two of them did nothing but enable each other, they both lacked the thoughtfulness to opt out of junkie life, and no one around them seemed to care enough to help them stop (there’s an interesting scene with Nancy’s family– surprisingly average suburbanites– none of whom know what to do with their relative, and it’s implied they’re no longer interested in trying, despite Nancy’s eagerness to spend time with them).

Where the film treads on iffy ground, however, is when it not-so-subtly compares the bedrock of life-ruining heroin addiction to falling in love. Time and time again both Nancy and Sid are advised by those around them, even their drug dealers, that their mate is destructive and they should leave the relationship. Sid & Nancy is trying to show us a picture of love that many of us have experienced; something that is ill-advised but still impossible to abstain from, when the object of your affection is also your undoing. This works on two levels: not only do the two lovers in question promote the cycle of drug intake and irresponsibility that is their ruin, they also love and hate each other as much as they individually crave and suffer on heroin.  They are each other’s drug of choice.

Nancy even tells a friend of hers (PLAYED BY COURTNEY LOVE IN A WEIRD TWIST), with a grim smile on her face, “love kills.” There is a famous scene in which the two of them, drugged completely out of their mind and rail-thin, kiss in a New York alley while garbage rains down on them in slow-motion; it would be romantic if it weren’t so depressing.

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“And I’m delighted to call them my own– I love them because they’re trash!” — Oscar the Grouch

So too is Nancy’s death, which is lead into by what I think is a really great bit of acting from both Oldman and Chloe Webb (who is really just so annoying in this movie that I find her hard to praise, but to be fair she does do an excellent job with what material she was given), where Nancy, reaching her max for pain and depression about their shared squalor of a life, begs Sid to kill her. Sid says no, he wants to go back to England, where people care about him, where he will “get straight” and Nancy, like the shoulder devil we all fear, cries and tells Sid that no one else cares for him like she does, she’s his “best friend” and that he’ll “never get straight.” Regardless of what did or did not happen in reality, I found this devastating.

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“After this movie, the only other work I’m going to be known for is Twins with Danny DeVito! TWINS, Sid!!!”

Eventually, they get into a scuffle as Sid tries to leave their hotel room, and Sid does indeed stab Nancy. He didn’t intend to, the movie says, but nevertheless, he did kill Nancy, and eventually he’ll kill himself.

The movie ends with our rock “hero,” wandering about New York, fuzzy-headed after making bail once Nancy’s body has been discovered. He pauses to dance about endearingly with a few kids and then stops to glow at the arrival of a Nancy vision, who appears in a taxi. She’s clad like a punk bride in a lacy white dress, and the two of them ride off into the sunset of New York, off to…rockstar heaven?

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Well, that’s one part poignant, two parts WTF.

As someone who spends a good deal of her time reading, writing, and watching movies, I also spend a fair amount of my mental energy debating The Artist’s Responsibility. When one tells a story about a weighty subject, especially one so dark as this, one treads into very morally choppy waters, I think, and the artist behind the presentation had better know what he or she is doing.

I would argue that any story– any character– is free game. A storyteller has the right to tell their story how they prefer. Still, if that storyteller choses a character for their purposes like, say, Sid Vicious, particularly if that character is based on a real person as he is here, the storyteller absolutely owes it to their audience to make a moral decision. They must do their utmost to present their tale with as much heft as possible, without vagueness. That doesn’t mean being preachy or heavy-handed, but if one’s desire is really to make great art, that art should strive to make the world a better place, without propaganda or romanticizing (not like, make the world a better place by influencing a bunch of people to save the whales, but a better place because now people understand something true).

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Someone get this man a violin.

If you’re going to tell a dark story, then more power to you. I’m tremendously attracted to movies and literature with dark themes, personally. Bring on your Shame, your True Detective, your Blue Velvet. I’m often challenged on this subject, but I feel like any content that the storyteller chooses should be available to them– sex, drugs, rock & roll, violence, talking cats. Why censor yourself if such content helps you express your subject matter? If you’re going to make a movie about junkie punk rockers, then please, by all means show us the squalor of their lives as well as the glamour of what brought them there in the first place. But please, please try to say something of value with the material.

Images on the screen, while they should never be held responsible for anyone’s real-life behavior or opinions, are an influence. No one is going to seek out the lifestyle of Nancy Spungen because they really enjoyed Sid & Nancy, but the depiction of Nancy as a tragic heroine who just loved her man to the point of annihilation is a romantic notion, and only feeds into the idea that love must be torturous to be authentic.

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So that’s what they mean when they call her a compelling heroin.

This is true of so many stories. Two novels by the Bronte sisters spring to mind: Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre both present heroines that, while complicated, are so in love that they are willing to go down with the sinking ship that is their romance (it works out okay with Jane, thankfully, despite her love interest’s Attic Wife). These are great works of literature, and I by no means think that they should have been prevented from being published, but it’s a great shame to me when I hear fans (and sometimes myself) dwell on the wrecking ball of romance that swings through the pages rather than anything else about these powerful novels.

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“No more tickle fights, Mr. Rochester. Don’t you know I’m an early feminist icon?”

Beyond the romantic angle, you also have the enduring, harmful images of the flame-out rockstar heroes (a club which Sid belongs to) who, by way of a different kind of story-telling, reach iconic status and reinforce the misinformed musician’s creed that for memorable stars it’s “better to burn out than to fade away” (in the words of Neil Young). This whole idea ensures the constant resurfacing of the bothersome Tortured Artist caricature (the ear-cutting, psyche-ward-dwelling Van Gogh, for example), which tells all of us “creative types” that not only must we have a troubling relationship with our own art, we must also pursue harmful behavior and muster our lowliest demons in order to create at all. It’s a fact that this “ideal” leads artists to seek out such instability in pursuit of the myth that we must experience Great Pain in order to make Great Art. What hogwash.

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Interesting.

To be fair to Alex Cox and company, it’s true that when you tell a story, even with what seems like perfect clarity to you, you have limited control over what your audience is going to take away from it. Subjectivity, to a point, is one of the greatest elements– and the trickiest part– of artistry. Sure, it could be argued that even if Cox had made something fully depicting the depravity of drug addiction without any of the romantic flourishes, there may still be a viewer somewhere who might determine that Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen were misunderstood heroes anyway.

Martin Scorsese’s insanely entertaining film The Wolf of Wall Street is a great example of this: even though I thought the movie was outrageously funny, I found the lead character’s (mostly true) story to be a fine display of what greed, guilt, misspent ambition, and the tawdriness that accompanies unearned wealth earns you: a lifelong freakshow. Though the money sounds nice, I never once during the viewing of the film felt Leonardo DiCaprio’s version of Jordan Belfort’s life to be one I envied. I was then surprised to find out that the movie was condemned due to the admiration that many young people had formed for Belfort after watching it.

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I’d like to Sid Vicious try THAT one!

While a quick google search tells me that Nancy’s killer is still up for debate (so far as Sid Vicious fans are concerned) and Sid’s mother was actually a heroin addict herself who supplied Sid with the drugs he overdosed on, the fact is that Nancy, no matter how troubled or downright ridiculous she was, was still murdered. Alex Cox’s decision to depict Sid as someone without much agency when it came to Nancy’s death, yet still the guy with the knife in his hand, doesn’t let Vicious off the hook, but it doesn’t exactly affirm Sid’s identification as a junkie murderer. Though there may well be more to this story, to make a movie about a famous couple without having a solid statement about what happened to them is a cop-out.

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“You know, for a junkie, my hair is always pretty on point.”

While I think painting Sid as a “manboy” makes the movie work to explain its interpretation, if Sid Vicious really did kill Nancy, especially if it was intentional, then the choice to show otherwise may even be called disgraceful. Furthermore, for the film to end with the couple happily reunited, even though Sid OD’d some time later (despite reports that he often talked about wanting to die to be with “his Nancy,” says Wikipedia), and for “Sid and Nancy RIP” to appear before the film’s closing credits is even more shameful, if this is a murderer we’re talking about. No matter how good the film is, it still doesn’t sit well with me that Roger Ebert, after praising this film, called Vicious and Spungen the “Romeo and Juliet of Rock & Roll.”

As with Jane Eyre and The Wolf of Wall Street, sometimes interpretation simply varies wildly, and the creator has little say over this once their work is in the world, and no artist is perfect. One can only hope for an audience that is discerning enough to understand what you were going for. To my mind, this is all the more reason why an artist should do their best to look at their story from a moral perspective and tackle their work with intention– this does not mean I recommend eschewing subtlety in favor of a Bible-based morality tale, but it DOES necessitate a thoughtful approach to subjects that may already have an unhealthy public opinion attached.

Gary Oldman (Sid and Nancy)
“Gimme an A! Gimme a… wait, isn’t spelling a form of conformity?”

I watched a Gary Oldman career retrospective-based interview recently, and in it, when asked about Sid & Nancy, Oldman recoiled, dismissing the film by saying what he felt even while he was making the movie: Sid Vicious was not only a terrible musician, but a lousy subject. “Why make a movie about someone like that? Sid Vicious? Why?” He says this is the reason why he turned down the role several times until his manager begged him to do it. I think it’s a good question. Why Sid? Why Sid & Nancy? What was the point? Is it fairy tale or cautionary tale? We’re never really sure.

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Why wouldn’t Gary want to relive this, I wonder?

For my money, though I actually think Sid & Nancy is a very interesting movie (certainly one that’s hard to shake– in fact, after I finished writing all of this I boosted the Oldometer’s reading of it from 6/10 to 7), I like Amanda Palmer’s take on the Sid Vicious situation in her song “The Ukulele Anthem“:

Sid Vicious played a four-string Fender bass guitar and couldn’t sing
And everybody hated him except the ones who loved him
A ukulele has four strings, but Sid did did not play ukulele
He did smack and probably killed his girlfriend Nancy Spungen

If only Sid had had a ukulele, maybe he would have been happy
Maybe he would not have suffered such a sad end
He maybe would have not done all that heroin instead
He maybe would’ve sat around just singing nice songs to his girlfriend…

Of course, that vision wouldn’t have left us with the “Romeo and Juliet of Rock & Roll,” but I think I’d be okay with that.

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4 thoughts on “Five: Sid & Nancy, videotapes, tragic romance, and The Artist’s Responsibility

  1. Great review 🙂 Interesting bit of trivia: Courtney Love reportedly auditioned for the role of Nancy Spungen 🙂 Interesting isn’t it 🙂 Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂

    Like

    1. I read that! I read that Cox wanted to give it to her but his investors wanted a more experienced actress for the role. I actually think she would have been generally good, but then, Nancy doesn’t do much but screech the whole movie. :/

      Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Kate

    I had never seen the John Lennon quote. I can understand Gary’s discomfort with the role. When I think of Sid, I think of the “My Way” persona. Your post pays tribute to the character without glorifying his deranged singularity.

    Always an enjoyable read!

    Liked by 1 person

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