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Sid Vicious - part of God Save The Sex Pistols VICIOUS! (you hit me with a flower)

(New Musical Express – 1st February 1986)

Alex Cox, the director of last year’s cult film Repo Man argues about punk, inglorious death and the tangled flowers of romance. In an exclusive interview with Stuart Cosgrove he discusses his latest project, a film on Sid and Nancy’s love-affair.

PUNK NOSTALGIA is the last desperate refuge of the new-wave scoundrel and 1986 is scoundrel time.

Alex Cox, whose first feature film Repo Man was one of last year’s unofficial screen triumphs, sits humorously fielding a rant against punk. All this tenth anniversary crapola is just an excuse to wallow in insignificance, the NME looking backwards in search of its own finest moment. A complete negation of now and a fortuitous chance to glance over the shoulder of musical history to find a time when all was hip, aggressive and political.

And what about Sid And Nancy: Love Kills, Alex Cox’s forthcoming film on the life and times of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen? Has a dead junkie been elevated by heroinism into some special mythological category as if he really mattered? Nostalgia is nature’s way of saying you’re past it. Or is it?

Alex Cox disagrees. “The film is very nostalgic simply because punks were a good thing. In 1976 I was at film school in Bristol and I remember walking down the street and seeing this guy with the date on the back of his jacket. I thought it was one of the coolest and cleverest things I could ever conceive of. Okay, maybe my brain wasn’t working at its best, but I felt it was immense, really significant. To have 1976 written on your back was more imaginative than anything young people had done. It was tremendously optimistic because the Pistols and early Clash were this very positive force.”

The voice shifts into a self-mocking gear. “Like, hey man, social change through music. But it didn’t happen. It was co­opted. Sid died a junkie and all the optimism was dissipated. But in 1976 they were real feelings.”

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be that’s for sure. Revisiting Brideshead, celebrating the Queen’s silver jubilee or riding the chariots of yesterday’s aristocratic fire are simply ways of opting out of today’s reality to find comfort in a partial image of the perfect past. So what makes punk so special? Why is any retro life-style, whether ‘6Os soul or ska revivalism, worth taking seriously?

Why should I give a Friar Tuck for Absolute Beginners or re-cycled celluloid images of two dead punks? Don’t they dig up the past in order to cement the commercial cracks of today’s unimaginative moment? Tenth anniversary memories are this year’s tired joke. Or are they?

For Alex Cox, the pressure is on. Sid And Nancy: Love Kills has to be this year’s most authentic film; get one grunt wrong and the collective weight of the Criterion Brasserie and historical inaccuracy will fall on his shoulders.

We have attempted to be quite accurate about the way things look to the extent of scampering around sticking period number plates on parked cars and trying to avoid mini-metros. But if you’re shooting outside Harrods in the rush hour, historically inaccurate cars are bound to appear, a stray British Telecom van is bound to spoil things. In that sense it could never be an authentic period creation, there are many mistakes, and I hope people come along to play ‘spot the anachronism’.

“But the film is faithful to the spirit of punk. It starts off very optimistic and funny with tons of jokes. It makes a very exotic world out of what was effectively a very grimy and mundane one. It deals with the spirit of punk before the superficial gloss of Thatcherism and shows a whole group of young people cutting through all that and going out of their way to be outrageous and obnoxious. It shows them trying to establish an ‘alternative community’ which I suppose is something that will be said ad nauseam as people talk about the tenth anniversary of punk.”

That’s all very well, but punk nostalgia is notoriously disinterested in British Telecom vans; it wants to hear about some vile little creep throwing up in a polite and public place. Will Alex’s film make sure all the punk motifs are catered for?

“We’ve done our best to include gross eating habits and as many spitting and farting sequences as the story could manage. In places it gets really grotesque so I don’t think people will be disappointed in those respects.”

SID AND NANCY- Love Kills is one of this year’s most ambitious films, a biopic based on real individuals whose death is closely associated with the ‘symbolic’ death of a youth culture and a musical style.

When it opens in the summer, its audiences in both Britain and America will turn up with an attitude that’s more critical than usual, ready to pounce on mistakes yet not completely sure what it thinks of the central characters - Sid, played by the British actor Gary Oldman, and his tragic blonde girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, played by the New Yorker Chloe Webb.

The danger is obvious. Two punk junkies fall in love and when their pact goes wrong he stabs her to death in their room at the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. He is charged with first degree murder and a few months later dies of a heroin overdose from drugs supplied by his own mother. Or so the tabloids said. His name. John Simon Ritchie, transformed by punk into Sid Vicious, confirms the ordinariness that lay at the heart of their romance. But can the film deal with the story and protect itself from the accusation that every screen image will glorify the characters and their actions?

“I think the film does romanticise Sid and Nancy. I set out to make a romantic film and given that they are the central characters, inevitably it romanticises them. But I don’t think it glorifies them, and that’s an important distinction. There was nothing glorious about them. Nancy’s big fantasy was that they would go out in this big blaze of glory - ”I’m gonna die before I’m 2l, so there” - but they didn’t go out gloriously. In fact they went out ignominiously, in a stupid way. They were junkies and that was stupid because they just sat around in rooms all day being unproductive. If you actually look at the real Sid and Nancy, say in the long sequence in Lech Kowalski’s film D.O.A., it’s depressing, they were just boring. Sid was pathetic. We’ve taken the liberty of making them more interesting than they were in real life: that’s what every biopic does. But I hope we haven’t romanticised the crap paraphernalia that surrounded them.”

Narratives, whether cast in the form of wild westerns, hammering horrors or youth films refusing to give in to punk nostalgia, have the ideological habit of inviting us to identify with its central characters. Has Cox planned to go against the grain or should we prepare to identify with Sid?

Alex Cox on set“Sid and Nancy come over very understandable, not always identifiable, but you do end up understanding them, you maybe even sympathise. I think a lot of people feel sentimental about him, but Nancy has always had a bit of a bum rap. People think she was the evil bitch who killed Sid, as if he was some kind of innocent baby.

“About two-thirds of the way through the film they go to have Sunday dinner at Nancy’s grandparents in New Jersey. I hope that by that time the audience will be viewing the grandparents through the eyes of Sid and Nancy, and thinking they’re normal and that New Jersey and its suburbanites are the real weirdos.”

WEIRDO. What was the other one called? Rotten? What was his involvement in the project, apart from the gossiping suggestion that he hated the idea and wanted nothing to do with it?

“We heard he’d got a hold of the script and read it. When I was in New York casting I heard through the grapevine that he was staying at the Mayflower Hotel. So I called up and left this really insulting message “What are you, a wanker that’s scared to meet me.” – something to provoke a reaction. It did the trick, he returned my call at 5.00am while I was sleeping. He gave me an earful of abuse, he told me the whole thing was disgusting and I should be ashamed of myself.

“We arranged to meet up and got drunk on vodka-and-grapefruit cocktails and I found him charming and sentimental beneath an exterior of considerable cynicism. He still feels very fond of Sid and not so fond of Nancy. He felt the script was generally accurate but that his part was wrong, it used too many big words. He said ‘I don’t need to use big words to get my point across’. So we went through the script and cut out the big words. I’d still like him to get involved in the film, probably through music. We have songs by Dee Dee Ramone, Joe Strummer, Iggy Pop and The Pogues. All the songs are called ‘Love Kills’ and I’d like Lydon to write a song called ‘Love Pils’.”

Cox has a healthy fascination with punk; he’s able to separate the hopefulness from the hype, and his spiked hair, distressed jeans and sawn-off tartan shirts are not the normal fabric of film directors. His careful manipulation of the press, refusing to grant interviews and clouding certain sequences in mystery, has shades of McLaren. Get set for the great celluloid swindle.

“We had to keep the press away for the sake of the actors. It wasn’t intended to be Machiavellian but in some respects it turned out to be beneficial to ban the press, firstly because there was less distraction and secondly because it built up interest in the film. I suppose it’s a bit like McLaren sending the Pistols to lousy dives in Texas then saying ‘The press can’t come, don’t tell them where the gig is!’ It created a tremendous wave of excitement.

“But for us it was more to do with the fact that it’s a low budget movie. We rarely spent more than a day in any location, it was like making a film on the run and the press get in the way."

SID AND NANCY: Love Kills, a film Cox describes as “a biopic, a romantic love story which has been embroidered to make it more interesting”, will be judged to some extent by its music. As his follow-up to Repo Man it will also be judged by the quality of its cinematic images. And in turning the X-generation into images there is undoubtedly the danger that Cox will not only glorify but actually gentrify punk. Like those New York galleries of eight years ago, will his film strip away the rough edges, beautify the subject and turn it into an art object?

Cox reserves judgement. “The film cannot help but provide these images of enormous beauty, it’s a very good looking film even if the subject matter is sometimes rough. It’s not what I expected but it takes it out of the grim reality of the dour London of 1977 and into this larger frame. It does have a romantic quality which is good because it’s supposed to be a romance but it’s not pretty in a Ridley Scott way, not like a chocolate-box.”

When those images do appear, on the screen, in magazines, on posters, and in the popular imagination, might they not begin to re-interpret and re-write the history of punk by turning Sid and Nancy into the lovers that summarized a scene and its music? Will the film tangle the flowers of romance? Will Alex Cox short-circuit punk?

“I don’t think Nancy ever was a punk, Sid definitely was, but he was likeable in a dopey kind of way. Had he survived he would have become the Liberace or Wayne Newton of punk, doing cover versions of ‘Delilah’ or ‘Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa’. But how could that be? I’m sometimes not even sure if Sid and Nancy do fit into the whole punk thing. The real significance was this all-consuming love affair. The cynics might say it was just a love affair with drugs, but I think it was more than that. The rare instance when two people become inseparable, that’s what was significant about their lives.”

Researched and compiled by Phil Singleton.
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God Save The Sex Pistols ©Phil Singleton / 2006
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God Save the Sex Pistols

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