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Looking back at Alex Cox film 'Sid and Nancy' film 35 years later

“I know a life of crime has led me to this sorry fate, and yet, I blame society. Society made me what I am,” Harry Dean Stanton’s Bud says to Otto, the protagonist of Alex Cox’s 1984 cult classic Repo Man. “That’s bullshit. You’re a white suburban punk just like me,” Otto replies, a significant line in Cox’s iconic countercultural film that embraced the radical, eccentric ideals of punk. Notable for its soundtrack that featured several popular LA punk bands, Alex Cox had a strong fascination with the punk genre that would make him a fitting choice for an independent feature film following the career and death of Sex Pistol’s bassist Sid Vicious. 

Delving into the mysterious, enigmatic and rather tragic story of the rebellious figurehead of the landmark punk band, Sid and Nancy deconstructs the life of John Simon Ritchie, known professionally as Sid Vicious. Cox’s film peers into Vicious’ turbulent relationship with the band as well as his volatile relationship with lover Nancy Spungen, crafting an intense and visceral love story spiked by the realities of fame. 

Casting frenetic character actor Gary Oldman in the lead role, Alex Cox originally wanted Daniel Day-Lewis to play Vicious, but was convinced by Oldman after seeing him play the lead role in Edward Bond’s The Pope’s Wedding. Turning down the role twice before accepting it, despite the actor’s outstanding central performance, he was unsure of the role at first. Speaking in a Playboy interview in 2014, the actor commented, “I wasn’t really that interested in Sid Vicious and the punk movement. I’d never followed it. It wasn’t something that interested me. The script I felt was banal and ‘who cares’ and ‘why bother’ and all of that”. 

Thankfully, Oldman reconsidered based on his agent’s own words of encouragement, with the actor losing considerable weight to play the emaciated Vicious, eating “steamed fish and lots of melon” before he was briefly hospitalised for taking the diet too seriously. Ever the thespian, Oldman continued on, producing one of his greatest roles to date, his performance becoming the linchpin of Sid and Nancy which can fall victim to being a sensational approach toward drug use. 

Sid Vicious’ story is a tragedy that began with a tarnished childhood during which his mother was addicted to heroin before he was brought into the Sex Pistols by John Lydon, the band’s frontman, and entered an uncharted territory of global fame and attention. Expressing his regret in bringing Vicious to the band, Lydon remarked in 2014: “He didn’t stand a chance. His mother was a heroin addict. I feel bad that I brought him into the band, he couldn’t cope at all. I feel a bit responsible for his death”. After all, it was the heroin supplied by Vicious’ mother, Anne Beverley, that led to his own death.

Despite emitting the same powerful punk intensity as The Sex Pistol’s had in their short reign in the music industry, John Lydon stands firmly against Alex Cox’s film, intensely shaming it as the “lowest form of life”. In a considerable statement, Lydon comments, “The whole thing was a sham. It was a ploy to get my name used in connection with the film, in order to support it. To me this movie is the lowest form of life”.

Continuing, Lydon adds, “I honestly believe that it celebrates heroin addiction. It definitely glorifies it at the end when that stupid taxi drives off into the sky. That’s such nonsense…  It was so off and ridiculous. It was absurd”. 

Criticising the film for its factual inaccuracies certainly opens up a window of exploration into the line between fact and fiction in relation to high-profile biopics, though what can be said of Alex Cox’s influential film is that it well captures Vicious’ energy and manic attitude whilst still addressing his own personal demons.

The truth to Vicious’ crimes lean toward condemnation, though remains slightly ambiguous, instead, Cox takes us on a tour of the psyche of a broken individual, focusing not on the character of Sid Vicious but instead the fractured portrait of John Simon Ritchie.

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