Thursday, April 2, 2009

Sid & Nancy

The fact that Sid Vicious became the primary figurehead of the punk movement makes terrible sense: who better to represent the "No Future" Blank Generation than the man who went out even before punk reached the end of its century (which lasted less than half a decade)? It's only fair that Sid is remembered as a vague icon rather than as a person; after all, he was added to a band that was all-image in the first place -- at the expense of Glen Matlock, the band's songwriter and singular source of actual talent, no less -- and strummed his bass in a manner that made the Ramones look like Emerson, Lake & Palmer in comparison.

But Sid owes his lasting infamy, more than the spiked hair or the Nazi fashion or anything else, to his relationship with Nancy Spungen. Separate they were immature junkies who couldn't possibly understand the path they were taking, but together? Oh dear, together the two formed one of the most toxic and mutually parasitic relationships ever committed to the hallowed slime of tabloid immortality. The two met, fell in love, and then fell harder into the heroin habit to end all heroin habits. Sid's perpetual state of No Feeling played no small part in the dissolution of the Sex Pistols, led to his inability to find steady work after the Pistols folded (though, in fairness, his utter lack of any appreciable talent helped, too), and resulted in a relationship full of physical abuse that culminated in Sid stabbing Nancy in a drug haze and later dying of an overdose.

The problem with tabloids is -- and I hope I'm not saying anything revelatory here -- that they practically congeal from a steaming pile of crap. They pander to what sells, and what sells is controversy, which in turn thrives in a world without context. When a rag stumbles upon the truth or delves deeper into its subjects you can rest assured you're simply witnessing the law of averages play out and not the start of anything approaching real journalism.

Director Alex Cox, unfortunately, apparently never learned this when he set out to make a film documenting the most torrid love affair in rock history. John Lydon, better known by his stagename Rotten, went out of his way to let everyone know that Cox did not consult him, any other Sex Pistol, nor anyone remotely connected to the real Sid. Heck, the closest he came was collaborating with ex-Clash frontman Joe Strummer on the soundtrack. And frankly, it shows.

My problem with the vast majority of biopics, both good and bad, is their over-reliance on the "highlights reel" as I call it; that is to say, even the quieter films essentially stick to the various stages of an artist's life that serve as either turning points or are simply interesting. It's even worse when video footage of such moments exists, because then the director will, nine times out of ten, simply reshoot the footage as closely to the original as possible with his actors to pay lip service to the people who'd get the myth.

Cox's film spends so much time doing this it's a wonder we get any insight into Sid and Nancy at all. There's the River Thames boat incident, the infamous Bill Grundy interview, that final Pistols concert in San Francisco not even a year after their first album hit shelves, Sid going through withdrawals in a cell at Riker's Island. It's all there, and it's all completely unexplained to anyone who might have just stumbled upon this film. Yes, 99% of the audience will at least have a cursory knowledge of the Pistols', but how many know real Pistols lore? Unless British schools are teaching punk history alongside maths and literature, a great many people won't get a great many references.

However, the film does have a saving grace, and his name is Gary Oldman. Because the script deals only with the public perception of Sid Vicious, Oldman plays up to the image we got of Sid, yet he adds enough of a human touch to make Sid into the tragic figure he always was. We see him as a fundamentally good manchild who simply couldn't cope witht he fame he tried desperately to attain. Likewise, Chloe Webb shines as Spungen, a much tougher role to pull off as she never had the cult of personality Sid continues to enjoy decades after his death. Indeed, she seems little more than a screeching harpy most of the time, but when Webb quiet delivers some of the film's most telling lines it's plain that the shrillness is a by-product of her highs. The two actors put in some downright award-worthy work here, and they help smooth over some o the weaknesses of the script.

Sadly, the same cannot be said of the rest of the actors. Andrew Schofield was nearly 30 when the film was made, but he looks closer to the modern, 50-year-old John Lydon rather than the brash bastard child of the 70s. Oldman was the same age as his co-star (and a good 6-7 years older than Vicious when he died), but look how right and youthful he looks for the role. Schofield's Rotten also possesses none of the wit and intelligence of the real thing, instead walking around the film with such a slack-jawed lack of understanding that the drug-induced catatonia of Vicious and Spungen seems energetic in comparison. Likewise, David Hayman's Malcolm McLaren is little more than parody. These two figures obviously appear more at the start of the film, in Sid's Pistols days, and it's a blessing when they drop out near the end of the film.

Ironically, that final act, in which Sid and Nancy sink into their own little world of depressing, spiraling inevitability, is when the film truly comes alive. As the two retreat from everybody except the odd dealer, Oldman and Webb grasp you by the head and force you to watch the horror unfold in dreadful anxiety. When they set their hotel room in Chelsea on fire and simply sit and watch it burn, too stoned to even register the danger as the flames surround them, you completely buy these two characters. And when Sid awakens from his heroin blackout to discover he stabbed and killed the love of his life, the crushed look on Oldman's catatonic face is genuinely heartbreaking.

These final moments -- including an ending hallucination where Sid reunites with a virginal and clean Nancy -- redeem the near atrocity that is the first 2/3, but of course they don't elevate the film into classic status. Sid & Nancy does offer a harrowing look at the effects of drug usage, the hopelessness of two people barely in their 20s headed towards a grisly death. But I still can't help but feel somewhat disappointed by the film, including the good parts: this could have been a wonderful opportunity to peel back the mythos and examine the person under the image, rather than shuffling all that into the last 35 minutes. I can't really fault a film for not catering to my wants, but I would have liked to see a film about Simon John Ritchie. But Cox gave us a film about Sid Vicious, instead.

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