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30 Years Ago: ‘Sid and Nancy’ Tells the Story of Punk’s First Couple

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In the mid-’80s, British punk was dead, Sid Vicious was a t-shirt icon and nobody – outside of London theater circles – knew who Gary Oldman was. Sid and Nancy managed to change that after the film premiered on July 20, 1986 at London’s Limelight Club.

The movie was British writer-director Alex Cox’s follow-up to Repo Man, a project that had taken its cues (and certainly its soundtrack) from the Los Angeles punk scene. In Sid and Nancy,which was originally titled Love Kills, Cox and co-writer Abbe Wool wanted to explore the drug-infused relationship between Sid Vicious, bassist for the Sex Pistols, and Nancy Spungen, a groupie who fell for Sid. The film would portray the dysfunctional affair that would result in the death of both lovers.

It appeared that Cox wanted to expose Vicious as a person undeserving of punk worship, later writing in his autobiography, “Sid had sold out, contributed nothing of value, died an idiot.” But his casting of Oldman in the part would prove crucial. The stage actor, who had barely worked in movies at that point, brought a sad humanity to the role, a glimpse of a real person amid the filth and fury. Oldman received almost universal acclaim for his work (even from John Lydon, who hated the film) and it remains a favorite performance among cinephiles.

Chloe Webb also received praise for her work as Nancy. Although Courtney Love lobbied incredibly hard for the part, she had to settle for a minor role as Gretchen. Love wasn’t the only musician involved in Sid and Nancy. The Circle Jerks, Iggy Pop and Nico all appear in the film, the members of Guns N’ Roses were hired as extras for some of the Los Angeles scenes, and former Clash frontman Joe Strummer contributed much of the soundtrack.

Following its release in the U.K. and, later in 1986, the U.S., Sid and Nancy generated plenty of controversy among the surviving Pistols and others who didn’t agree with the ambiguous nature of Spungen’s death in the movie. It generated a great deal of approval from critics, who lauded the film for its acting, realism and look – aided by cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins. In his four-star review, Roger Ebert said, “It sees beneath their leather and chains, their torn T-shirts and steel-toed boots, to a basically conventional relationship between an ambitious woman and a man who was still a boy.”

What the film didn’t generate, however, was very much money. Sid and Nancy failed to make back its $4 million budget during its theatrical release. Yet, the movie has done better as a cult favorite on video and DVD and is a fixture on magazine lists of great biopics and rock and roll films.

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