Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Sid & Nancy: Criterion Collection (1986)
Studio Line: The Criterion Collection/Home Vision

A lacerating love story, Sid & Nancy chronicles the brief, intense attachment of two of punk's most notorious poster children, Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen. Director Alex Cox balances a bleak evocation of star-crossed love with surreal humor and genuine tenderness, creating a compelling portrait of the late '70s punk scene. With brilliant performances by Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb, the films haunting imagery and black comedy resonate long after the final frames.

Director: Alex Cox
Cast: Gary Oldman, Chloe Webb, Drew Schofield, David Hayman, Debby Bishop, Tony London.
DVD: Widescreen 1.75:1; audio English Digital Stereo; subtitles none; single sided - dual layered; 25 chapters; rated R; 111 min.; $39.95; street date 10/27/98; Out-of-Print.
Supplements: Audio Commentary by stars Gary Oldman & Chloe Webb, screenwriter Abbe Wool, cultural historian Greil Marcus, filmmakers Julien Temple & Lech Kowalski, and musician Elliot Kidd; Liner Notes; "England's Glory" Documentary; 1976 Bill Grundy Interview with the Sex Pistols; Telephone Interview with Sid Vicious; Interviews with Sid and Nancy from "D.O.A.: A Right of Passage".
Purchase: DVD | 12 Days on the Road: The Sex Pistols and America - Noel E. Monk | CD soundtrack - Sex Pistols

Picture/Sound/Extras: B-/B/B+

When a film documents recent events, one problem stems from the familiarity of the viewers, especially when the depiction covers a famous topic. Many more people will grant you artistic license when you tell a story about Mozart than when you show the Beatles; too many of the viewers lived through the events and will have an innate sense of accuracy.

Sometimes the facts can be correct but the tone is wrong, and thatís kind of how I felt about 1986ís Sid & Nancy, a film that depicts the seedy love story between American waste-oid Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb) and talentless British rock star Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman).

Although he remains arguably the bandís most famous member, Vicious had almost nothing to do with the music of the Sex Pistols. His predecessor, bassist Glen Matlock, was really the main creative force in the group, and he was much of the reason for their success with tunes like ďAnarchy in the UKĒ and ďGod Save the QueenĒ.

Matlock got the boot apparently because of some bourgeois tendencies; singer Johnny Rotten indignantly spat that he wanted to turn the band into the Beatles. Vicious came on as Matlockís replacement although he didnít know how to play the bass.

Matlockís departure eventually would have killed the band since he was the creative force; granted, the group somehow produced what it arguably their best song - ďHolidays in the SunĒ - after he left, but it seems unlikely anything else of significance would have developed. In any case, this was a band with a shelf life, though not for the usual reasons. Generally itís teen-oriented groups like Backstreet Boys who feel the ticking of the clock; rock bands can go on for much longer. However, the Pistols embodied the crash and burn mentality of punk; they had to die for the movement to make any sense.

(This didnít stop them from regrouping for a brief and fairly unsuccessful reunion tour in 1996. At that times many other bands had reunited to cash in on nostalgia, so there was an appropriately cynical tone to the reformed Pistols. It should have been a disaster, because few bands belonged to their era more than the Pistols, but somehow they pulled it off; I saw one of the shows and thought it seemed nasty and nihilistic enough to live up to the bandís reputation.)

S&N tries to pin the groupís demise on Viciousí escalating drug habit, and that may well be related to the immediate cause. However, itís too neat a turn to be real, and the film ignores the general chaos that surrounded the group. The movie makes it appear as though the other members were organized and efficient but that damned loser Sid ruined all of their pop-chart plans! The story even makes Rotten look like an artsy perfectionist. Thatís not even remotely accurate, and this tone - however will it fits the movieís storyline - kept me from buying into the tale.

Actually, there was a lot about S&N that made it next to impossible for me to suspend disbelief. The reproductions of the Pistolsí songs didnít come terribly close to the originals. Worst of the bunch was Andrew Schofieldís attempts to emulate Rotten; he gets some of the technique correct but never reasonably replicates the original. The music comes closer but still left me feeling distant (even though Matlock performed on the filmís tunes).

The film alternates between telling us how untalented Vicious was (which is true) and also sending the message that he could have been a big rock star on his own (patently false). Vicious had a few moments of ironic glory as a solo artist due to his punk rendition of ďMy WayĒ but there was literally no chance whatsoever he could have done anything else in the business. The movie depicts Nancyís continued insistence that he has what it takes to be a star, and the story often seems to believe her; the tone appears to demonstrate that only some narrow-minded jerks kept him from reaching his potential.

Iíve looked over other reviews of S&N that complain about the movieís general tone of darkness and decay. However, I thought the events rarely seemed dismal and unsettling enough for me! Thereís a mood about the time that should have come through in the film but it never does, and thatís why the picture always felt like a cheap replication of the period. Director Alex Cox clearly has an affection for the time, but somehow he completely missed the boat in his depiction of the era. Itís hard for me to pinpoint the flaws, but I just thought that the movie felt wrong.

The same went for the much-lauded acting of leads Oldman and Webb. This was Garyís first notable role, and while he seems to inhabit Sid to a certain degree, I never really bought him in the part. Frankly, Oldmanís innate intelligence came through too much of the time. Sid was a moron - a total moron at that - and Oldman simply appears too bright, sensitive and insightful to play Vicious. Thereís simply too much going on in his head.

As for Webb, she offers a terribly grating and off-puttingly screechy performance as Nancy. I have more trouble judging the accuracy of her portrayal, but it felt too broad. Actually, it reminded me of Tracey Ullmanís annoying comic turn in Woody Allenís Small Time Crooks in that the actress adopts the most nasal and whiny of American accents. Is this really how Nancy sounded and acted? Perhaps, but it seemed forced nonetheless.

I guess that remains my biggest complaint about Sid & Nancy: it never feels real. The movie seems to want to get the era correct but it never is quite able to do so; a few moments come across as vivid and accurate, but too much of the picture is muddled and ineffective. S&N scores points for taking on a difficult and unpleasant subject and rendering it in a fairly graphic manner, but I ultimately thought the movie didnít live up to its potential.

The DVD:

Sid & Nancy appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.75:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although itís a decent picture in its own right, the transfer found on this older Criterion DVD doesnít match up with the consistently terrific presentation seen on the new MGM release.

Sharpness seemed fairly good, as most of the film nicely crisp and detailed. However, many wide shots appeared somewhat soft and hazy, and these scenes didnít seem as well-defined as they should. Moirť effects presented no significant concerns, but I did witness a few examples of jagged edges. Print flaws seemed more prevalent during this transfer. Light grain showed up in much of the film, and I also saw various examples of speckles, grit and nicks that didnít appear present in the MGM version.

Colors were bright but occasionally seemed somewhat oversaturated. Despite the dank subject matter and generally decaying tone of punk, the film offered a lot of bright and vibrant hues. From dyed hair to lots of different outfits, most of the colors looked vivid, but at times they were excessively heavy. Black levels seemed deep and rich, and shadow detail was clear and appropriately opaque. Had I not seen the terrific MGM presentation, I might think this was as good as Sid & Nancy could look; after all, it comes from a very low-budget source. However, while the Criterion picture appeared decent, it lacked the clarity and solidity of the newer transfer.

The filmís Dolby Surround soundtrack sounded identical to the mix found on the newer MGM DVD, which was a good thing, since both presented strong tracks. The soundfield seemed essentially monaural during the early parts of the movie but it soon began to expand. Music spread nicely to the side speakers and also often blasted from the rears; during club scenes, the tunes surround you effectively and realistically. Other scenes conveyed appropriate and mildly engrossing ambiance - even with some dialogue that appeared in the side speakers - and audio panned between channels cleanly. Itís not a rock-Ďem, sock-Ďem affair that youíll use to impress friends, but I found the soundfield to be nicely engaging.

Audio quality seemed similarly solid. Much of the dialogue was difficult to understand, but that resulted from thick English accents and had nothing to do with the recording. Otherwise, speech seemed reasonably natural and warm and showed no signs of edginess. Effects appeared generally clear and accurate, and at times they boasted some nice depth, such as during a loud thunderstorm. Music seemed consistently crisp and deep, with solid dynamics and good accuracy. The bass wasnít as tight as Iíd like, but for a movie from 1986, the soundtrack seemed very positive.

Although the film presentation on this DVD of Sid & Nancyisnít quite as solid as on the MGM counterpart, one area in which the Criterion release wins easily regards its supplements. The MGM release only offered the filmís theatrical trailer, but the Criterion edition includes a slew of great extras. First up is a 1994 audio commentary from actors Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb, screenwriter Abbe Wool, ďcultural historianĒ Greil Marcus, filmmakers Julien Temple and Lech Kowalski, and musician Eliot Kidd. Strangely absent is director Alex Cox, but even without him, itís a typically solid Criterion track.

As is typical of their commentaries, all of the participants were recorded separately and their remarks were later edited together. Some donít care for this approach, but I like it because it ensures little dead space and it means that the quality of the statements generally stays high. We hear a great deal of solid information about this track that details aspects of the era depicted - including lots of flaws - plus what the performers intended. I especially enjoyed the remarks from Oldman. Heís such a chameleon that I donít know if Iíd ever heard him speak in his natural voice, and he adds lots of good nuggets about his methods. Marcus also adds a great deal of historical information that works well, and Templeís often-snotty comments about how wrong the film got things is consistently amusing. Itís a very solid track that added to my enjoyment of the film.

Next we find ďEnglandís GloryĒ, a 30 minute and 15 seconds documentary shot during the making of S&N. Itís tremendously incoherent but still very interesting, mainly because it consists almost totally of impromptu material from the set. Itís a lot of entertaining nonsense that wonít add much to your understanding of the filmís creation but youíll enjoy it nonetheless.

More documentary footage appears in ďDOA: A Right of PassageĒ, a 10 minute program that shows material shot during the Pistolsí 1978 US tour. This piece offers the only shots of the real Nancy that can be found on the DVD, which is what makes it especially valuable. Although we only see a few shots of Nancy, they contributed to my feeling that Webb overplayed her obnoxiousness; while Nancy clearly could be quite shrill, she doesnít seem to have been so consistently annoying as the person played by Webb. Comparisons between real-Sid and Oldman-Sid are more difficult to make because the real guy slept through most of the filming. In any case, ďDOAĒ offers a good look at the genuine articles.

A very cool addition to the DVD comes under the category ďThe Filth and the FuryĒ. Also the name of a Julien Temple Pistols documentary that came out on DVD in the fall of 2000, this piece actually shows the bandís pre-Sid incarnation in their infamous two minute and 55 second appearance on Bill Grundyís TV show. Their behavior stirred up a huge controversy at the time, though itís hard to understand why in this day and age; basically they utter a few profane words and thatís about it. Still, itís great to have this snippet on the disc.

Note that during ďEnglandís GloryĒ and the Bill Grundy piece, the Pistols tunes couldnít appear due to rights questions. Instead, Criterion take the subversive route and overdub calliope music, of all things. Oddly, it fits!

Lastly, we find an odd but compelling extra: a phone conversation between Sid and photographer Roberta Bayley. Sid fell into a drug-induced coma after a plane flight and was hospitalized; the discussion takes place while he was there. This 13 minute and 10 second chat is largely banal as Bayley tells Sid how bad the weather is (which was true - I still remember the enormous storm in the winter of 1978), but thereís enough fascinating reality to make the piece worth a listen. Sid comes across as only semi-coherent, but considering his state at the time, thatís not too bad, especially since I think Sid never rose above a level of marginal lucidity. The talk becomes rather sad and touching at times when Sid talks about his inability to kick drugs. Ultimately, itís a compelling piece of historical material.

Sid & Nancy apparently includes a booklet with a text essay about the film, but I canít comment upon it. I rented the DVD from Netflix and they donít forward these kinds of materials with their discs.

Sid & Nancy is a fairly interesting film, but I must admit it left me cold. The movie seemed too detached from the reality of the situation for me to take it as seriously as I should have, and though it provided some good moments and performances, as a whole I didnít much care for it.

The Criterion DVD offers a picture thatís not nearly as good as the transfer found on the new MGM release, but the sound mix seems identical, and the Criterion effort provides a slew of extras not found anywhere else. This DVD is out of print and will be hard to find, so if you just want to see the movie, the MGM release is the way to go. However, serious fans may want to seek out the Criterion effort due to its superior supplements.

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