(This is the third of 50 pieces I’ll post here over the next several months. They originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)
Alex Cox and his team do something very interesting here: telling “the” story of punk by offering up a love story. Sid and Nancy often falls short in accurately depicting “what happened” … you can’t come to this movie to find out why punk rose out of the ashes of English culture, or what Johnny Rotten was really like, or where Malcolm McLaren came from. Perhaps for these reasons, the movie doesn’t really hit its stride until the post-Pistols period, when Sid and Nancy have moved to New York. But the title isn’t The Roots of Punk, it’s Sid and Nancy (and the working title was Love Kills). Which isn’t to say the movie is not about punk; it is, but it insists on its own definitions.
It has always seemed to me both unfortunate and probably inevitable that the icon of punk is not Johnny Rotten, the smart, class-obsessed malcontent whose outrage was heartfelt but also thoughtful. No, Sid Vicious, in many ways a cartoon version of punk, is the icon. I would argue, then, that one of the great achievements of Sid and Nancy is that it continues the foregrounding of “Sid Punk” over “Johnny Punk" but redefines “Sid Punk” into something half romantic and half junkie. Punk is reduced to the love between two kindred souls, which isn’t how we normally think of punk. And that refusal to go along with the norm is itself a nice punk move.
Sid and Nancy also confronts the nihilism that some attach to punk. As I and others have noted, when Johnny Rotten said “NO!” with passion, his passion was ultimately a “YES!” The stupider interpretation, though, never gets further than the negation. Sid and Nancy rubs our noses in what that negation means: the lives of these two junkies is pathetic, unappealing, and miserable, and leads to death.
That the film nonetheless maintains a true feeling of romance between its protagonists is remarkable in this context. And I can’t say enough about the greatness of the performances of Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb, who make that romance palpable.
Comments this time spent as much time talking about the Sex Pistols as about the movie. A couple of people said they didn’t like the film when it came out, but might check it out again now that I’d promoted its excellence.