illustration by Tom Ralston

Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy (1986) begins near the end, shortly after the murder of Nancy Spungen on October 12th, 1978. Based on a true story, the ending lives on in various forms. In one version, Sid Vicious, former bassist for the Sex Pistols, stabbed Spungen, his girlfriend—who then bled out on a bathroom floor—in a drug-induced frenzy. In other versions, Nancy was murdered by someone else, possibly a drug dealer who supplied them, while Sid lay unconscious on the hotel bed. In yet another version, Spungen’s death resulted from a suicide pact gone wrong.

Their story spurred a complicated mythology, and the choices inherent in depicting versions of Sid (Gary Oldman) and Nancy (Chloe Webb) were destined for controversy. The film opens with a nearly catatonic Sid being questioned by police. Nancy’s body is then carried out of the Hotel Chelsea room where she and Sid lived for several months before the murder. Her friend Gretchen (Courtney Love) screams that Sid wouldn’t commit such an atrocity, that Nancy was nice. She walks by a man slagging off her recently deceased friend: “She would go to bed with anyone as long as they were part of a group.” The story is already being written and mined for entertainment. “Give us a big smile,” a reporter commands Sid as police lead him away.

In the next scene, a cop tells Sid, “We just wanna know who the girl was.” We might ask what version of Nancy we’re about to see—or Sid, for that matter. How much can we trust this version of the story?

Nancy: “Never trust a junkie.”
Sid: “They’re junkies, are they?”
Nancy: “Isn’t everyone?”

There’s been plenty of criticism aimed at how Sid and Nancy are depicted in Cox’s cult classic, sparking questions about authenticity in filmmaking when a story is based on real people and real events. Sid and Nancy isn’t a documentary, nor does it attempt to explain the punk scene in late-‘70s England. It’s a film largely focused on a relationship and moments of intimacy that others weren’t privy to, leaving swaths of blank spaces for storytellers to fill in. Still, the choices themselves aren’t above critique, and it’s interesting to note Cox’s intention. He’s been quoted as saying that the film was a portrait of “fools who’ve wasted their lives and betrayed the music.”

To provide context, Cox includes flashes of vibrant chaos that marked a specific time and place. Kids roller-skate through the streets of London in their school uniforms, bashing cars with rackets and cricket bats for the hell of it. Perhaps the imagery is heavy-handed, and it might not account for the punk movement as a reaction to socioeconomic circumstances, but it provides a spirited shorthand. The energy between Sid and Nancy is palpable as well, at least at the beginning. They might not have much to rely on, but they can rely on each other.


When I was younger, I crashed in the attic of a squat house in a small Florida town. Locals called it “Spider House.” I’d heard that it was given the name due to a persistent infestation of spiders. During my time there, I didn’t see more than the expected arachnid presence in an abandoned house in the South, only the usual parade of insects that were a part of daily life: mosquitos, palmetto bugs that were basically flying cockroaches, actual cockroaches. 

People came and went at Spider House, mostly kids in their mid-to-late teens or young adults in their early 20s. Some were seeking refuge after being rejected from home. Some were just passing through. When I arrived, I was greeted by a large, bearded guy—21 or 22 at most—who took a break from dyeing his hair with blue Manic Panic to show me around. The next night, I met a girl who put on a shadow puppet show with a flashlight to pull another couple back from a bad trip they were having after dropping too much acid. I didn’t see the shadow puppet girl after that night, and I wondered if she’d been a hallucination, too, until I learned that she’d run away with a nomadic hippie group called “The Rainbow.”

There wasn’t any running water or electricity at the house. I woke up drenched in sweat each morning and rinsed myself with a bottle of water that I’d fill up at a shop nearby. The nights could be brutal, but the rickety bones of the house were propped up by the genuinely kind people I met there. Food and water were shared. We offered attention when someone needed to be heard. We created our own space, separate from the outside world. 

When you don’t fit in, people make up their minds about who you are without speaking a word to you. You become less than human, a figure that exists to teach a lesson. You’re mythologized in a single glance.


The myth of Sid begins with his name: born John Simon Ritchie, also known as John Beverley when his mother remarried, he was better known as Sid Vicious. Cox’s film is peppered with references to Sid’s mother. He frequently writes to her, and she’s brought up when he’s interviewed: “Your mum says you’re a nice boy. Any comment?”

This stands in contrast to Nancy’s relationship with her family. In a phone booth, begging her mother to wire money to her across the Atlantic, Nancy shouts in defense of Sid: “He loves me more than you do!” At Nancy’s grandparents’ home back in the US, the pair are a disruptive presence, and they’re politely but firmly urged to leave. When Sid asks why they were thrown out, Nancy responds, “Because they know me.” By all accounts, Nancy had a difficult relationship with her family. She had a complicated history of mental health issues that aren’t addressed in the film—and, perhaps, weren’t sufficiently addressed in her short life.

These versions of Sid and Nancy endure, more myth than fully formed, flawed people. When Sid’s bandmates complain about his inability to play the bass guitar, manager Malcolm McLaren says, “But Sidney’s more than a mere bass player. He’s a fabulous disaster. He’s a symbol. A metaphor. He embodies the dementia of a nihilistic generation.” The film doesn’t examine Sid’s background, his mother’s own drug addiction, or that she threw him out onto the streets when he was just 16 years old.

Although the films skirts past their backgrounds, rejection haunts both characters. Like Sid, being an outcast is a cornerstone of Nancy’s life. In a scene following their first sexual encounter, she starts to leave, as though she’s operating on autopilot. She’s doing what has always been expected of her. She looks stunned when Sid pulls her back into bed, into his arms, and asks her to stay. Their tethering is swift and impenetrable.

The closer they become, the more the outside world disappears. Later, in a scene where the police arrest and assault concert attendees, Sid and Nancy glide through the chaos with their arms around each other, laughing, an invisible force surrounding them. They find comfort in each other. Sid might repeat “We don’t fucking care” like a mantra, but as we see him drawn towards Nancy, it sounds more like verbal armor designed to shield him from loneliness.


After the squat houses, I moved, temporarily, to a shelter for homeless youth. I wasn’t alone. I in-processed with my boyfriend, a boy with a mohawk and nearly as many piercings as I had. He came from a difficult background, too. His childhood was shaped by a parent with untreated mental health issues, while mine was scarred by alcohol-fueled abuse. We weren’t allowed to bunk in the same room at the shelter but we saw each other in common areas, and together we searched for any job we could find during the day.

Our relationship wasn’t healthy, but being on my own would have been worse—or so went my warped thinking at the time. I had someone just as messed up and lost as I was. We had our happy moments, but we argued often. Neither of us was emotionally stable enough to make a good partner. He would joke that we were like Sid and Nancy, and a friend gave me a t-shirt featuring an image of the pair handcuffed together. It was good to have someone that I could lean on when I was scared—when I was threatened or catcalled by random men, and when I was erroneously accused of stealing from a store because I “looked like the type,” according to the manager. It felt good to have someone to commiserate with when we were rejected for job after job, even though we’d remove our piercings, smooth our hair, and borrow clothes to look worthy of minimum wage. The shelter provided a phone number that was answered by a generic voicemail message so that prospective employers wouldn’t be tipped off that we were living there. 

The people at the shelter knew as well as we did that to be found out as an outcast, as being unloved, would kill our chances completely. But most prospective employers figured it out anyway. To live at the shelter was to be part of a notorious mythology. We were warnings, figures that didn’t fit into established norms.


“I’ll never look like Barbie. Barbie doesn’t have bruises!” Nancy laments as she examines her legs. She’s the antithesis of the clean, hyper-feminine, impossible image that Barbie represents. The bruises are physical reminders that signal her feelings of inadequacy and the violence she’s endured. The couple are at Sid’s mother’s flat. Reeling from the speed that they’ve ingested, Sid slaps Nancy. Stories of Sid’s violent outbursts abound, attacking others and inflicting self-harm. They’re as common as descriptions of him as quiet and polite. 

Cox’s film isn’t concerned with delving into details or diagnosing the root of the behaviors we see. It’s fair to question what the film elides. As the story progresses, the focus closes in on its primary objectives, and a rough claustrophobia emerges. A viewer familiar with the story might get the feeling that these characters aren’t just struggling against the hopelessness of their situation, but struggling to break free of the myth that obscures their existence as actual, deeply troubled people.

The film takes us along the Sex Pistols’ US tour, but Nancy is banned from accompanying them. Sid calls to declare his love and his desire to have sex with her. “What am I supposed to do, put it in a box and send it?” Nancy responds. When the tour ends in disaster, Sid winds up hospitalized. Nancy appears in the doorway of his hospital room, a savior armed with a trolley full of Christmas paraphernalia. Their forced separation has been agony. The film then shifts squarely on the couple as they travel to Paris and then New York, and plunge deeper into drug addiction.

Sid has a go at a solo music career, and Nancy plays the part of his manager. In a scene recreating Sid’s performance of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” the audience is filled with poshly dressed extras, including Nancy in a Christ-like crown of thorns. The audience showers him with roses, and he responds by retrieving a gun from a holster that’s hidden under his white blazer. He randomly shoots into the crowd. He shoots Nancy, too, a bloody foreshadowing. But she rises, as though resurrected—a feat possible in this magical, mythical world of performance. Nancy ascends the onstage stairs, her white gown trailing behind her, to kiss Sid as the lights fade. 

It’s a scene of dark romance. Yet, moments like these are bookmarked by scenes of despair. In bed together, in darkness:

Nancy: “When I’m dead, will you be sad?”
Sid: “I couldn’t live without ya.”
Nancy: “You couldn’t? We’d better go together then.”

The crux of Cox’s view occurs at a methadone clinic, where a man doling out doses preaches, “Smack is the great controller. Keeps people stupid when they could be smart…You could be selling healthy anarchy.” It’s difficult as a viewer to not hope for more for the couple, to rewrite the mythology, despite knowing how it’ll eventually end. There may be truth at the heart of the man’s lecture, but it can’t penetrate Sid and Nancy’s world.

Sitting in the back of a cab with Nancy, the Pogues song “Haunted” plays: “I want to be haunted by the ghost / Of your precious love.” Stanley Kubrick said, “A film is—or should be—more like music than like fiction.” Cox not only employs music to great effect but stitches together surreal moments that rise and fall to the music of what is, essentially, the story of a first love ravaged by addiction. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Sid and Nancy kiss in an alley by a dumpster, in slow-motion, their bodies foregrounded, as trash falls around them like confetti. In the rubble, only the two figures matter. It’s a surreal moment that illustrates their deep enchantment, a moment upended when our gaze pulls back again to a wider view and the intensity of their pain is apparent. Suffering from withdrawal on a subway, Sid tells Nancy that his “bones hurt” while passengers stare at them. Seeing only what they can see, the onlookers are filled with disgust. 

The viewer might start to feel like a voyeur, like we’re observing something we shouldn’t, or that we’re grasping for meaning where there is none. Friends and acquaintances appear confused by the couple’s destructive devotion to each other. Sid’s bandmates despise Nancy. “I don’t know why you hang with this chick,” a drug supplier wonders aloud. Gretchen urges Nancy to leave Sid, but Nancy believes that their connection is inextricable. “Love kills,” she answers—a reference to the screenplay’s original title.

The further we spiral down into the depths of the couple’s addictions, the stranger the film becomes. Nancy is mesmerized by the fire she sets off in their hotel room, but doesn’t move to leave. Sid doesn’t notice. They’re too strung out to understand that they’re in danger, a metaphor for where the couple find themselves at this late point in their relationship. The hotel is shot in an eerie light, evoking a cold realm between life and death. The film turns away from an aura of spirited lawlessness toward a suffocating nightmare, an almost Lynchian view of two people barreling toward annihilation.

The foreshadowing ramps up, too. Nancy fixates on a knife in a shop window, the knife that will later be plunged into her torso. Sinking into depression, she talks about death often, and tells Sid that she wishes they could leave, as if escape is no longer viable. They’re barely able to function, and it all becomes too much. Nancy wants Sid to make good on a previously-discussed death pact. “You promised,” she pleads. But Sid wants to leave. He says that he wants to get straight. The conflict becomes a violent confrontation, and the scene unfolds as though Nancy is practically begging for death.


Long after I left the shelter and squat houses behind, I learned that a high school classmate I knew had been murdered by her boyfriend. Though she and I weren’t particularly close, the news felt like a punch to the chest. We had friends in common, mostly the goth or punk kids at the margins of the stifling spaces we occupied. Shocked and bewildered, and having since moved far away from the US, I scoured the internet to find out what had happened and followed every development to see what would become of her murderer. Her picture often accompanied the articles I found. Reddish-purple hair. Dark, heavy makeup. People left cruel messages insinuating that her appearance had somehow invited such horror upon her. One webpage that appeared in my search results was nothing more than a screed against people who looked like her, and used her death as an example to support the writer’s twisted logic. These horrible things were said about a smart, kind young woman, still in her 20s, whose life had been brutally cut short. Even in death, she wasn’t granted the basic respect and dignity she deserved. For some, she was merely a figure in someone’s fiction.


At the end of Sid and Nancy, after Sid is released, he ends up in a strange, ethereal scene: a pizza parlor at the end of the world, or possibly New Jersey. A group of kids shows up outside, amongst a gray landscape strewn with rusted-out cars, one carrying a boombox blasting KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight.” After Sid scarfs down a slice and knocks over a table, the kids convince him to dance with them, though he initially scoffs. “Stop being so stuck up,” they say. His dancing, at first pointedly silly, becomes playful and relaxed. He seems happy. Free. Headlights shine on the scene and a cab appears from the fog. Sid peers into the backseat window and smiles: Nancy is there, alive and dressed in white lace. Sid joins her and they kiss. As the cab drives them away, one kid shouts, “Yo, Sid! You don’t even know what you’re doing!” The scene alludes to Sid’s real-life death while offering an otherworldly reunion. It’s a fantasy that’s easier to digest than reality. It isn’t until we return to the timeline where the film begins that we’re reminded of its perspective. The story of Sid and Nancy is told as an extended flashback that occurs after Nancy’s death. We might wonder who’s telling the story. 

It’s easy to forget just how young Sid and Nancy were, though Cox’s film includes scenes where they play in childlike ways—like the two running around while shooting cap guns. Oldman and Webb provide powerhouse performances, but each actor was nearly a decade older than the people they were portraying. Nancy Spungen was only 20 when she bled out under a bathroom sink. Sid was only 21 when he died of a heroin overdose while out on bail, four months after Nancy died. Some close to the couple claim that the murder wasn’t sufficiently investigated. After Sid’s death, the case was closed.

We have mythologized Sid and Nancy because we need to make sense of senselessness. They sit more neatly in our imaginations. Held up to the light, their story becomes slippery and indecipherable. Sid and Nancy are sometimes described as a punk-rock Romeo and Juliet, which always rubbed me the wrong way. But if I’m looking at commonalities between the two, it might be the tragedy at the heart of it all—that in the end, they were just kids who didn’t think they stood a chance.