Sid & Nancy
With the lacerating love story Sid & Nancy, Alex Cox reimagines the crash-and-burn affair between punk’s most notorious self-destructive poster children: Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen—brought to visceral life by brilliant performances from Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb. Cox turns his anarchic filmmaking style on the explosive energy of the London punk scene and the degenerate streets of seventies New York, making for an eviscerating depiction of excess and addiction. Through the lens of cinematographer Roger Deakins, the imagery goes from swooning to grimy, and the film’s bleakness is balanced with surreal humor and genuine tenderness, making for an affecting, music-fueled vision of doomed love.
Alex Cox’s Sid & Nancy returns to the Criterion Collection through a new Blu-ray edition, which presents the film in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a dual-layer disc. The new 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation comes from a new 4K restoration taken from a scan of the 35mm original negative.
This new restoration and presentation offers a significant improvement over all previous home video versions of the film in North America, from Criterion’s original DVD (discontinued around 17-years ago) to MGM’s own Blu-ray edition. None of this comes off as too big of a surprise since the only real direction the presentations could go was up. Criterion’s original DVD was non-anamorphic and a port of their original LaserDisc edition, and though fine enough for the time it’s now laced with artifacts and noise, and the restoration work can leave a bit to be desired. MGM’s Blu-ray utilized the same high-definition master used for their own DVD edition and by the point of its release it looked dated: it was flat, lacking real definition, looked processed, and had weak colours and crushed blacks. Like a lot of MGM Blu-ray releases from that time it feels like a lazily put together one.
Unlike that edition it’s obvious far more love and care went into what we get here. The restoration work has been far more thorough and I don’t recall any glaring print flaws or other blemishes. The image is also considerably sharper with a better handling of the finer details in both close-ups and long shots: outfits can look far more elaborate here and the brickwork on various exteriors is always sharp and clear. This improved clarity also lends to the film’s grain management, which is present and fairly heavy, but at the very least looks consistently natural and clean.
The colours also look better. They’re a bit brighter here, not as dull as the MGM could look at times, and I thought they could look a bit closer to the old Criterion DVD a bit of the time. Black levels are also better in comparison to the MGM disc and shadow detail is also far better. In all this is without doubt the best I’ve ever seen the film look. It really is a marvel.
Criterion includes two English audio tracks: a lossless LPCM 2.0 stereo surround track and a DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround track. As to which one should be used I think it may come down to preference as both are quite good, providing excellent fidelity and a nice amount of range. Dialogue is as clear as possible (ignoring some of the mumbling) and music sounds quite good, very sharp and distinct, and it’s here where the surrounds get some good use. The 5.1 track actually does present noticeable direction in the rears and I thought music was a bit sharper, but I don’t think the mix was overly zealous. Still, I found both tracks to be dynamic and perfect for the film.
Losing Criterion’s special edition for the film was always a real shame: though certainly not their most lavish edition it offered a terrific set of features that worked to contextualize the film, give insights into the performances (which included footage of the Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen themselves), and even offered an assortment of opinions on the final film and how true it was to the actual story. It was a really well-rounded and insightful edition.
Thankfully Criterion has regained the rights and have managed to port everything over from the original DVD, starting with the excellent audio commentary recorded originally in 1994 for their LaserDisc edition. It features screenwriter Abbe Wool, actors Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb, cultural historian Greil Marcus, filmmakers Julien Temple and Lech Kowalski, and musician Eliot Kidd. This track is similar to a lot of group tracks from Criterion at the time: it has recorded everyone individually and then Criterion edits it together into a sort of essay. It’s a fascinating track because of the wide range of participants, from those who directly worked on the film (Wool, Oldman, and Webb) and then the others who compare the finished film to actual historical events. From all of this we interestingly get a wide set of opinions and reactions to the film.
Marcus is taking more of a scholarly route and really tries to look at the film from an objective point of view: he knows what probably really happened but understands the film is going to (and has to) take artistic liberties. He also talks about the punk scene and how the film works to capture it and the music that came from it. The other three offer more firsthand accounts, with Kidd sharing stories and talking about the scene, as does Temple—who worked with the Sex Pistols. Temple admits an annoyance to the film, calling the first half “laughably wrong” but finding the last half hits its mark, and with that he tries to work through how much leeway one should give a filmmaker working on a biopic. Kowalski, who directed D.O.A.: A Rite to Passage, which followed the Sex Pistols in the States (excerpts of which appear in the supplements on this disc), also offers firsthand accounts but seems less forgiving of the film, especially in how it depicts the death of Nancy (though he seems to buy into a conspiracy theory that there was some sort of cover up involved). Listening to Wool talk about the development of the film, and then listening to Webb and Oldman talk about their performances or noting audience reactions is all very interesting, but it’s the conflicts of opinions between the other members of the track in the biographical aspects of the film, and the nature of the two’s heroin addiction, that keep it interesting. It’s also fresh to hear the varying opinions on the film (which aren’t always glowing, even Oldman admitting he’s not particularly fond of the film). The track is not only full of information but it comes off very honest, and this was especially fresh at the time when most studio commentary tracks could be self-serving. I have always liked the track but coming to it again made me appreciate it even more.
Criterion then includes a second audio commentary, this time featuring director Alex Cox and actor Andrew Schofield, which was recorded in 2001 for the region 2 DVD special edition released by Momentum Pictures. One of the most glaring things lacking from Criterion’s otherwise great special edition was the participation of Cox. I always found this a bit odd and assumed it was because he was distancing himself from the film for whatever reason but this commentary doesn’t hint at that being the reason. Though Cox admits he thinks the ending of the film is “shite” and completely “bogus,” he otherwise seems very proud of the it, very quick to point out everyone involved in the film and praising their contributions, from Oldman’s and Webb’s performances to Roger Deakins’ photography. Both Cox and Schofield then share stories about the shoot, talk about the punk scene (Cox referring more to the punk scene in L.A. since he wasn’t in London during the time) and also talk a bit about showing drug addiction on film. It’s an incredibly packed and rather fast-paced track, both illuminating and entertaining.
Carried over from the original Criterion DVD is the 30-minute making-of England’s Glory, a compilation of behind-the-scenes footage, and also featuring interviews with members of the cast and crew, particularly Cox. It doesn’t have a real focus, just floating around a bit, but it captures a few interesting conversations, particularly one Cox finds himself in with some local skinheads who are on set. Another interesting moment features Cox directing the audience of the “My Way” video, holding up cue cards instructing the type of reactions he’s looking for. It’s a good documentary and it looks as though Criterion has gotten their hands a new high-def scan. Also of note is that the songs are no longer dubbed over like there were on Criterion’s DVD.
Alex Cox also provides a 24-minute interview that expands quite a bit on the already included commentary. It is here that he gets into more detail about the inception of the production, sharing why he made the film (which I thought was rather funny). He also talks more about his education and career, and his fascination with the punk scene, at least in L.A., where he was going to school. He also talks a little bit more about the research that went into the film, and even talks about some of the rather out-there (though rather intriguing) routes he considered going with the film before settling on a more general bio-pic. Again he’s a very engaging and energetic subject so the interview, which offers a couple of surprises, just flies by.
Also new to this edition is 14-minutes’ worth of excerpts from Danny Garcia’s 2011 documentary Sad Vacation. The excerpts offer some biographical details about both Sid and Nancy’s childhood and then goes over that fateful night at the Chelsea Hotel that ended with Nancy’s death through “reenactments” and interviews with people that knew the two and/or were there. The bit about that night doesn’t feel much better than what you might get from an episode of American Justice or even some Investigation Discovery show, but the supplement is great just for the more personal interviews (as a warning there are fairly graphic crime scene photos as well).
Ported from the original DVD are excerpts from Leck Kowalski’s D.O.A.: A Rite of Passage. We get 10-minutes’ worth of footage and it’s rearranged a little differently with more performance footage present. It gets some interviews with audience members expressing the appeal of the Sex Pistols, but the star moments here is the interview footage with the real Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. The two have obviously been using, with Vicious falling asleep at one point during the questioning (his response to a question are snores), and it appears, at times, the two may not be fully aware there’s a film crew there. It’s fascinating footage though undoubtedly troubling. But it also serves to show how well Oldman and Webb were able to capture the two. I’m glad this one was able to get carried over as well, and it also looks to come from a new high-def scan itself. (The feature does lack the promotional footage that opened the same feature on the DVD.)
Also here form the DVD is an audio recording of a 1978 interview with Sid Vicious, conducted by photographer Roberta Bailey (who also appears in the Sad Vacation excerpts) while Vicious was in the hospital following an overdose. He still sounds a little out of sorts but the two basically just “shoot-the-shit” on a variety of topics, from the Sex Pistols to comic books and even his desire to “go straight,” which Bailey begs him to do. He’s very open and honest, but it’s also a fairly sad interview considering how things turn out. Another one I’m glad Criterion was able to get again.
The Filth and the Fury! is the same 3-minute clip found on the old DVD from an episode of Today featuring Bill Grundy begrudgingly talking to the Sex Pistols, not holding back his contempt for his guests. The group does perform beforehand but like the version found on the DVD the music has been dubbed over. Still a great archival inclusion
There is then a 14-minute clip from The London Weekend Show, which acts like a retrospective to previous episodes that covered the punk scene and the fashions that went along with it. There’s footage from a performance, getting interviews with members of the audience along with the Sex Pistols and the Clash.
The disc then closes with the theatrical trailer (restored) and the included booklet features the previous DVD’s essay on the film by Jon Savage, as well as a collection of material that Wool and Cox had collected during their research. I was also happy to see that Criterion used the same montage for their main menu screen that they had created for the DVD’s menu. Not sure why I was happy with that, though it was probably more out of nostalgia.
Criterion’s previous DVD was a pretty impressive edition, and was one of my favourite early releases from Criterion. Happily Criterion has carried over all of that material and even added some wonderful new content.
It’s pretty safe to say this is the definitive edition for the film. It features an incredible audio/video presentation and some amazing supplementary material. Very highly recommended.