I first saw ‘Sid & Nancy’, then subtitled, ‘Love Kills’, at the Dendy Cinema in Sydney, in the early days of 1987. I had just turned 18 and my father offered to take me to see the film. It was my first “R” rated film and I was both shocked and thrilled by it, and it left a lasting impression on me.
Thirty years down the road and the film has been restored and will be re-released in cinemas this Friday, August 5. It’s fine timing, as June 4 marked the date of the official birth of British Punk: 40 years since The Sex Pistols performed at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall, and inspired a generation to reject the established ways of making music – and performing it, and denoted a definite change in youth culture.
Watching ‘Sid & Nancy’ again, nearly 30 years later, I’m struck by the scenes I remember very clearly. At the time I was annoyed by Nancy’s constant screaming, but now, I see her as a very broken character, forever wanting to be loved, to be needed, to have a place in the world. In fact, in the scene where she is imploring Sid to agree to their death pact, she brings this up, saying that at least Sid “had been somebody”. Other scenes that were vivid in my memory were Sid’s lock around his neck (“Where’s the key?” “What key?”) and him carving Nancy’s name in his chest while being watched by hordes of acolytes.
The film, despite its very tragic storyline, is very funny. There’s several scenes with children that are especially humorous – especially when they’re unexplained. Sid and his friend Wally (based on the original member of the band which was to become The Sex Pistols, Wally Nightingale) are going to Wally’s flat, and suddenly the street is filled with school children charging with hockey sticks bashing cars. Another notable scene sees Sid, Nancy, and their friend Gretchen (played admirably by Courtney Love), looking for drugs, when they come across some children beating up another one because he owed them money. They ask him who he is, and scarper when Sid tells them he’s Sid Vicious.
Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb, playing the titular characters, make us believe in their relationship, they are real, and hilarious. You believe in their love, even though you know it’s doomed to failure from the start. The film is at its very heart, a love story. But there’s a very dark undercurrent. You know that Sid is being manipulated by everyone, especially Nancy. Not the brightest of sparks by any means, you feel for him when he’s made to agree to Nancy’s death pact, even though he is desperate not to.
Time and time again, when things are looking up for Sid, something happens, and it all falls down again, and at the centre of the collapse is Nancy, every time. And of course, drugs. Way too many drugs.
Notable is the performance of Courtney Love. She had initially auditioned for the role of Nancy, but was turned down on the basis of not having enough acting experience. Love was however retained for the film, and shines as Gretchen, Sid & Nancy’s friend in New York. There’s a beautiful scene where she and Nancy are in a cafe, and Gretchen suggests the two of them leave their respective lovers. Nancy’s response is that “Love Kills”. It’s a heartbreaking precursor to the inevitable end.
The symbolism in the film is beautiful. Falling money and falling rubbish are pointers to the waste and decay in their lives. Drugs and a form of symbiotic love are their only motivation. When their room at The Chelsea Hotel catches fire, the pair are oblivious. It’s another motif for the fact of their relationship blinding them to the fact of it all going down around them.
Filmed on location, including in London, Paris, New York City, Jersey City, Los Angeles, El Centro, San Francisco, and at Cine World Studios Los Angeles, the cinematography by Roger Deakins, known for his work on ‘No Country For Old Men’, and ‘The Shawshank Redemption’, is absolutely stunning, and shots such as the garbage falling in the alley while Sid & Nancy are kissing, go a long way to making the film what it is. Beautiful, breathtaking. Simple shots such as Sid looking out the balcony to the Chelsea Hotel sign are also very stunning.
The film ends where it begins. We see Sid unable to take in all that has happened. Released on bail, he has another lovely scene with children, this time in a derelict dockland area in New York, dancing to KC and the Sunshine Band. But it’s too late. A taxi pulls up with Nancy inside. We know this is the end.
Does ‘Sid & Nancy’ stand up after 30 years? Yes it does. With a fantastic soundtrack, including the likes of The Pogues, Joe Strummer, and Black Sabbath, it’s poignant and heartbreaking and altogether (and I’ve used this word far too many times, but it’s simply the only one that describes it well enough) beautiful.
‘Sid & Nancy’ was co-written and directed by Alex Cox, and originally released in 1986. It’s in UK cinemas form August 5, before its EST release on 22 August and a new special edition DVD/Blu-ray release on August 29, on the Vintage Classics label from STUDIOCANAL.
The DVD and Blu-ray Special Editions feature new interviews with Cinematographer Roger Deakins, Director Alex Cos, and Director, DJ, and Presenter of ‘Punk On Film’ at the BFI, Southbank, Don Letts.