Sid & Nancy
A lacerating love story, Sid & Nancy chronicles the brief, intense attachment of two of punk’s most notorious poster children, Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen. Director Alex Cox balances a bleak evocation of star-crossed love with surreal humor and genuine tenderness, creating a compelling portrait of the late ’70s punk scene. With brilliant performances by Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb, the film’s haunting imagery and black comedy resonate long after the final frames.
Criterion’s original, long out-of-print DVD edition for Alex Cox’s Sid & Nancy presented the film on a dual-layer disc in the aspect ratio of about 1.75:1. Since this is one of Criterion’s early DVDs that probably reused the same transfer made for their LaserDisc edition it has not been enhanced for widescreen televisions.
The image could be a bit rough but otherwise looked good back in the day on your standard 4:3 CRT television. I think the screen grabs I took also don’t look too bad. But today it (unsurprisingly) doesn’t hold up at all well when upscaled to a high-definition television. In regards to restoration and its condition this is probably the best aspect: there’s a little bit of debris, mostly specs of dirt and some scratches, but the image is otherwise surprisingly clean.
The digital presentation itself is what hinders the image, and some of these problems were even noticeable back in the day on standard CRT televisions. The presentation is quite noisy and laced with artifacts. Somewhat surprisingly the film’s grain structure is mostly intact (whatever source they used was extremely grainy) but it’s not rendered all that well: a lot of shots are noisy, with really dark scenes and even scenes with bright backgrounds presenting a good amount of noise and artifacts. There’s also some really bad shimmering in scenes with really tight patterns and/or lines: the My Way number is easily the worst offender in this regard. Black levels are also a mixed bag, looking good sometimes, severely crushing out details during others. Despite all this, though, I still found details to be surprisingly good throughout most of the film. There are some softer moments but I actually blame the source more than the transfer. Colours are also really good, with some impressive reds and greens, especially for DVD at the time (this was released in late 1998).
Some of Criterion’s old non-anamorphic presentations have held up surprisingly well through the years but this isn’t one of them as it even showed problems back when it was first released. It just looks worse now.
Criterion included a Dolby Digital 2.0 surround track for this release and it’s an adequate one that serves the film well. It’s still pretty front heavy, focusing most dialogue and effects up there, but there are some solid and natural sounding pans: the police boat chasing down the Sex Pistols’ boat showcases this best. But the track sounds particularly good during musical moments, especially the My Way sequence. There are times where the music in a couple of the performance scenes can sound a bit distorted but I think this is intentional.
Fidelity outside of the musical numbers is not too great, dialogue sounding somewhat flat, and I feel this probably made it harder to hear sometimes thanks to slurring and heavy accents (though the latter won’t be an issue for everyone of course). Outside of that the track is still clean and I didn’t notice any severe background noise. All around it sounds fine and works for the film.
The strongest aspect of this edition was definitely its features, and I recall at the time this release being one of my favourite DVDs in my collection. Starting it off is a solid, classic style Criterion audio commentary featuring actors Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb, screenwriter Abbe Wool, cultural historian Greil Marcus, filmmakers Julien Temple and Lech Kowalski and has musician Eliot Kidd. Like a lot of commentaries at the time the participants were recorded separately and then edited together. I always liked these edited commentaries as they really seemed to keep things going and trim the fat, but the one issue with it here is that it does feel like we’re probably missing a lot of material since there is just so much to be covered. Still, it’s a very packed commentary that keeps moving at a good beat, with nary a dead spot. Because of the range of participants we get a lot of details not only about the production but the real Sid and Nancy themselves from the people that knew them. I enjoyed the stories about the two, the history of the Sex Pistols, and the comments about how truthful (or dishonest) the film is in its portrayal. But I also enjoyed the more personal elements, like what we get from Oldman, who talks quite a bit about his career, sharing a few funny stories (like when he recalls how a professor at school told him his career wouldn’t amount to much—ouch!). In all, though, it’s an invaluable commentary, the only real flaw to it being that Alex Cox is missing for some reason.
Filling any possible gaps are then a series of documentary and archival features. There is a making-of feature called England's Glory, which really is just as disoriented as the movie itself. It doesn't focus on anything in particular but we still get some nice behind the scenes shots. Since Criterion couldn't get the rights to some of the songs played in the documentary they've been dubbed over.
Better, though, is the excerpt from the documentary DOA: A Right to Passage directed by Lech Kowalski (who also appeared on the commentary), and the excerpt we get features the real Sid and Nancy. It’s a somewhat frightening feature, though not because of Sid and Nancy themselves, but more because it shows just how well both Oldman and Webb captured the two. It can be a bit tough to watch as the two are both clearly on “something” and can be incoherent. They're both in bed, showing no signs of getting out anytime soon, and though they’re both conducting this interview they also seem to be not entirely aware there are other people around. Sid even falls asleep during the interview, responding to one question with a snore. The feature is a bit painful to watch, though I found its inclusion to be an invaluable addition, showing us the real couple.
Criterion then digs up more archival material. An audio recording of a conversation with Sid Vicious over the phone is also included, conducted while Vicious was in the hospital following an overdose. He sounds very rough and doesn't seem too aware of what is going on. This is yet again another great extra that allows you to see a little more into Sid Vicious.
And another great extra is a clip from an interview with the Sex Pistols done by Bill Grundy. I admit to finding this addition fairly funny, though, again like most of the other archival material, painful. Bill doesn't seem too impressed with his guests and spends most of the time hurling passive-aggressive insults at them. And of course they just go along with it and make the whole situation that much more painful. The group also performs but the music has been edited out here due to rights issues. Yet another invaluable and great addition to the release.
An insert also comes with the disc, featuring written by Jon Savage. It explains a bit about the punk scene and how Sid & Nancy the film came about, how it was received and why it appeared so soon after the punk scene. It’s short but adds a much needed academic perspective to the release
MGM/Fox did release their own DVDs and Blu-ray editions for the film, but they included very few features in the process. While this edition falls a bit short in the A/V department its one stand-out were its supplements, which, while not exactly plentiful, really helped novices contextualize the film in relation to punk culture. I still find the supplements quite vital for this reason.
As mentioned before MGM/Fox had released their own editions on DVD and Blu-ray that improved over this release in terms of audio and visuals, but there was a time where I would have still recommended this release for its supplements since the new releases didn’t feature much. With a new edition coming from Criterion (after about 15 years of being out-of-print) coming out, though, including the same features (by all appearances) there’s really no point in picking it up anymore. But it was a really good special edition and still holds up well, even if the presentation leaves a lot open to improvement.