Most consumers have no problem loving a huge budget blockbuster. Movies that are meant to appeal to the widest possible audience usually do just that. But some films have a narrower vision, or simply contain more complex meaning than meets the eye. They aren't always art, and they aren't always even very successful. But for a devoted and eccentric few, they're the best entertainment money can buy. Once, beginning with Erik the Viking, a group of dedicated irregulars gathered weekly in a dingy dorm room to watch these films and discuss how what pleases the few might also appeal to the many. Time has separated the others in those discussions so that I alone remain to ponder the wider significance of cult cinema. But while the room is cleaner and I no longer have to skip class to do it, I still think of my far off friends whenever I hold Viking Night.
Viking Night: Sid and Nancy
By Bruce Hall
March 15, 2011
For anybody who is old enough to remember the Sex Pistols while they were big, it’s probably all a bit hazy by now. They weren’t around long and their public disintegration was a tragic one that left fans with the idea that they’d been cheated. For later generations, the Sex Pistols became either mystical figures of punk folklore or a sad example of how drugs, booze and hubris can destroy just about anything.
For everybody else, just know that the Sex Pistols are the band largely credited with popularizing punk music in the UK. Maybe that means nothing to you; kids today either couldn’t care less about punk music or they think Green Day invented it, and those guys are all pushing 40. Meanwhile, music snobs will argue that the Pistols were corporate phonies who put the last nail in the coffin of good garage music. There are a lot of opinions surrounding these guys, but opinions aren’t facts and the truth is far more interesting than any of the misconceptions. The place the Pistols hold in music history depends on who you talk to, but the sad fact is, the fate of the band eventually ultimately determined by its least competent member. That would be Sid Vicious, who along with front man Johnny Rotten became the popular face of punk music.
Johnny was a working class Irish lad with a chip on his shoulder and Sid was a conflicted kid from London who just wanted to be where the action was. Johnny was the driving force behind the music; Sid was named after Johnny’s hamster (seriously), and they both came of age at the epicenter of London’s punk scene. Armed with Johnny’s sardonic, snarling voice, Sid’s menacing presence and catchy, controversial songs, the Sex Pistols took London by surprise and started a cultural meltdown. But two and a half years later, it was all over. Sid was dead; Johnny and the band’s manager were at war in court and the punk scene soon imploded, crushed by the wave of synth pop and hair metal that was the 1980s.
The mythology behind the Sex Pistols, their rise and their chaotic demise has become legend. But legends have enemies and your enemies usually spend more time worrying about you than your friends do. The Sex Pistols had a lot of enemies, who actively contribute to misconceptions about the band, which makes the truth harder to come by. A lot of people believe that what killed the Pistols was when Sid met the woman who would ultimately destroy him. She’s been called the Yoko Ono of punk rock, which isn’t fair, but generalizations are never the truth; they’re a point of reference. The truth is far more complicated, but you’d never know it from watching Sid and Nancy.
The problem isn’t that Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb) wasn’t a destructive influence on Sid and the band. She was, and it did play a big part in the group’s destruction. The problem is that Alex Cox’s 1986 biopic fails to put any of it in context.
Nancy was a troubled American with severe emotional issues and a world class heroin habit. There’s no doubt that her influence caused Sid to take up the drug as well, and her nutty mix of assertiveness and vulnerability appealed to him every bit as much as the smack did. But within the framework of the band’s history, all of this happened against a backdrop of more complicated issues. Nancy would end up dead under mysterious circumstances and Sid, charged with her death, would eventually commit suicide. But as the fabric of the movie’s narrative evolves, the story parallels Sid’s short tenure with the band’s fragmentation, but it never studies the significance of anything beyond the superficial. We see lots of things happen that establish character and situational outlines, but none of it has any depth.
Early in the film we see that Sid is an angry youth prone to outbursts of violence, but we’re never told about the constant upheaval in his upbringing. Nancy comes across as a combination of Cindy Lauper and a bloodthirsty Amazon head hunter. But we’re never told about her stormy childhood or any of the factors behind her emotional instability.
Events are treated this way as well. We see the infamous barge incident when the band tried to disrupt the Queen’s Elizabeth’s anniversary celebrations. But we’re never told what we’re seeing and it’s never explained that the band’s seedy manager (David Hayman) intentionally put the band in situations bound to end in controversy or violence, just for publicity.
We’re shown Sid’s hilariously disturbing version of the Paul Anka classic “My Way”, but the event isn’t given any context and those not in the know might assume it’s a dream sequence when in fact it was one of the last major turning points in Sid’s life. Scenes that could be played for laughs are not, such as an awkward meeting between Sid and Nancy’s extended family.
Worst of all, small moments that highlight Nancy’s underlying vulnerability or Sid’s aching desire for love are glossed over or overlooked entirely. What we end up with is a fictionalized mockumentary with a fly on the wall view of two revolting people killing themselves. Without humanizing any of his characters, Cox allows the leads to come across as little more than depressing caricatures. Lingering scenes of Sid and Nancy mumbling and fumbling go on for so long that it feels like a snuff film. When it’s over you feel almost as guilty for watching it as you might should when rubbernecking a car accident.
Sid and Nancy seems to have fans among those who dig the avant-garde and despite its amateurishness (or possibly because of it) the film has always been a draw with the counterculture set. Unfortunately the movie is a cancerous mass of shortcomings that does little to dispel inaccuracy about its characters, and in a lot of cases it just adds to them.
That’s a shame because Gary Oldman is dead on as Sid, showing in his first starring role the reason why he’s still in demand. And all other considerations aside, the Sex Pistols really were a lot of fun. Their music and the music of the age were all about short term gratification through random acts of stupidity, and while it isn’t logical it sure is infectious. They contributed in no small way to the future of popular music and the band’s retinue even contained future stars like Billy Idol.
As you can see, like most music biopics the subject matter is rich, vibrant and full of life. And when you suck the life out of a good story, all you have is a bunch of words, and that’s exactly what Sid and Nancy feels like. Most important, John Simon Ritchie (I told you, Sid Vicious is a hamster.) and Nancy Spungen, despite their flaws, were somebody’s son and somebody’s daughter. The era, the music, the band, the public and most important - two people who died before their time deserve much better.