Sid and Nancy

April 27, 2012

Sid and Nancy, a harrowing version of a doomed punk love story, is often unpleasant, but that it works at all is rather remarkable.

Near the beginning of Sid and Nancy, a barker stands on a seedy London street corner encouraging passers-by to enter a sleazy club. After giving his litany of degraded attractions, he shouts, “It is worth it?”—then, lowering his voice and looking into the camera, he says, “Yes it is.”

That seems to be writer-director Alex Cox’s nod to the inevitable criticism of his film—that its subject matter is too horrible to watch. It’s about the pathetic love story between Sid Vicious, the bassist for the standard-bearing punk band the Sex Pistols, and his American girlfriend, Nancy Spungeon. She died at his hands; a few months later he was dead of an overdose.

The film documents this with surprising wit, but never glosses over the violence and squalor of the scene. Sid (played by Gary Oldman) and Nancy (Chloe Webb) are sad creatures, but Cox does not condescend to or romanticize them (and they are superbly acted). Cox also infuses his movie with black humor, but of a kind that captures the horror of his characters’ lives (rather than the smart-alecky humor of his first film, Repo Man).

And his ending, in which Sid finds a pizza place located somewhere on the edge of eternity, is beautiful. This film is sad and distasteful, but in many ways extraordinary. It is worth it? For the strong of stomach, yes, it is.

First published in the Herald, November 1986

This is a short review; it must have been a busy week for openings, as this number ran with similarly brief takes on 52 Pick-Up and Modern Girls. I haven’t seen it since it came out, so I don’t know whether I would still call Chloe Webb’s performance superb—maybe just an excellent case of casting. A rather special film in 1986, I have to say–it came out at just the right moment. I wrote Oldman’s name back then as “Gary Oldham,” but who knew?

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Track 29

March 29, 2012

After Track 29, the “Chattanooga Choo Choo” may never sound the same again. The song gives the movie its title (you know—”Track 29/Boy you can give me a shine”), and it’s prominently featured in a sequence in which a doctor gives a rousing revival speech before an audience of railroad enthusiasts, at the same time a truck is crashing through his house, where his wife’s fantasy child is trashing the doctor’s elaborate computer-operated train set.

This thumbnail description doesn’t being to convey the madness of the sequence, so you can imagine what watching it is like. The perpetrators of Track 29 are two of Britain’s most provocative talents: director Nicolas Roeg, the creator of Performance and The Man Who Fell to Earth, and screenwriter Dennis Potter, who previously wrote Pennies from Heaven and Dreamchild.

Roeg and Potter seem to have egged each other on, into the far reaches of the bizarre. Track 29 tells the tale of a bored housewife (Theresa Russell, who is also Roeg’s wife) in a small town in the American South.

Stultified by her marriage to a doctor (Christopher Lloyd) who prefers the company of his train set, she becomes intrigued by the presence of a young Englishman (Gary Oldman, who played Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy).

The drifter says he is her long-lost son who was taken away from her when she was 15 years old and unmarried. She believes him, despite the fact that he appears to be her own age. But then again, it becomes increasingly apparent that the young man exists only in her mind—that he is born out of her frustration and her desire to have a child.

Her husband considers her “totally loco” (no train pun intended); he’s busy spending time with a nurse (Sandra Bernhard) who spanks him while they listen to tape-recorded railroad sounds.

The whole thing plays like something Tennessee Williams might have written after a really, really lost weekend. There is some tired satire of American society, but most of the film examines the peculiar psychosexual unhappiness of the Theresa Russell character. Russell, the star of Black Widow, is a good, daring actress, but there’s never much more than sheer kinkiness at play here, and she has little opportunity to create a performance.

Roeg’s films are getting stranger. They were always odd, but they used to be weird-brilliant, or at least weird-interesting. Now they’re just weird-weird. We have a right to expect more.

First published in the Herald, October 7, 1988

This movie must have some defenders, but I’ve never heard of it crawling up to the level of cult film or anything like that. I stand by everything but the last line of the review; we don’t really have a right to expect anything, and a filmmaker like Roeg can do what he wants. I wish this movie had worked, though.