2016 Film Essays

Punk Celebrates Its 40th Birthday with a Night at the Movies


Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols did not make a name for himself with his skill as a bassist, song-writing prowess or any other musical abilities of which to speak. He was the screaming, snorting and hardcore embodiment of punk. Covered in blood, spitting into crowds and high off his tits, Vicious’ only skill was his strict obedience to punk. Although music’s most notorious bassist was not yet with the Sex Pistols when they made history and brought punk to the masses on June 4, 1976 at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall, his unusual entry into the band’s ranks in 1977 gave the anarchic movement an eternal, spiky-haired effigy.

Alex Cox has no reason to sugar coat Vicious’ tumultuous life, and makes no attempt to paint him as anything but a carefree madman in his cornerstone 1986 film, Sid and Nancy. Opening on the aftermath of Vicious’ (alleged) murder of his long-time girlfriend Nancy Spungen, Cox’s film makes no apologies. Delivered as a sort of flashback while in the custody of New York City police, Sid and Nancy covers the brief time Vicious spent as an active contributor to the punk movement, leading up to his death by overdose on February 2, 1979.


Almost as if in awe of his Vicious’ ability to not give a fuck, Cox’s film enjoys anarchy only in name, and never in practice. Dividing his time between fly-on-the-wall filming of some of the Sex Pistols’ legendary gigs and documentary-style recordings of their off-stage antics, the director’s keen eye for framing and composition feel wasted on a film built around chaos. Aided by his cinematographer, Roger Deakins, Cox drenches his film in the neon colors of a seedy stretch city street, contrasting these boisterous pigments with the washed-out hues of a hungover city, lit by a sleepy sun rising over buildings, still steaming with the stench of the night before. Editor David Martin plays his part in some startling match cuts that seem to be the only cinematically unruly aspect of the film — apart from a drug-addled hallucination of Vicious’ performance of My Way — while cutting the rest as if it were a projection of half-remembered nights and drug-fogged benders.

Showing considerable skill as the incognito leading man, Gary Oldman gives an early career-defining performance as Vicious, alongside cinema-freshman Chloe Webb (the titular Nancy). Webb and Oldman have an entirely revolting onscreen chemistry that flaunts the pair as perfect surrogates for the King and Queen of Punk. Oldman’s full-body transformation for the role predates Christian Bale’s performance in The Machinist and Daniel Day-Lewis’ in My Left Foot, while securing his legacy as one of the greatest Hollywood chameleons of all time. Webb’s film debut is nothing short of a stunner, with her grating, sexualized-junky take on Spungen. As a pair, Oldman and Webb are an appalling, unbearable couple, becoming people not even a mother could love (and, in one scene in which Spungen’s grandmother kick the pair out of the house, not even a mother’s mother).


Coming to UK cinemas in a newly-restored, high-definition version (as supervised by Roger Deakins) on August 5, 2016, and on a special 30th Anniversary edition Blu-ray/DVD on August 29, Sid and Nancy is a cinematic punk anthem for those members of the movement still clinging to the peak of anarchy in 1978. Relying heavily on the sheer talent of its leading performers, and the loud boisterousness of the music that defined an era, Alex Cox’s ode to punk is pure Anarchy in the UK.

Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinephile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.