‘Sad Vacation: The Last Days of Sid and Nancy’: Film Review

Sid and Nancy - H 2016
Richard Mann

Sid and Nancy - H 2016

A compelling oral history of ’70s Manhattan’s seedy glamour and two of its most damaged souls.

Punk’s most notorious couple are remembered by their friends and neighbors.

“There’s 8 million different theories,” an interviewee says in Sad Vacation. He’s talking about Nancy Spungen’s officially unsolved death by stabbing, in the room that she shared with Sid Vicious at the Chelsea Hotel. Claiming to present an unprecedented “solid timeline of events” on the fateful night, Danny Garcia’s documentary might not produce any crime-solving aha moments, but its reminiscences by people who knew the couple build a compelling portrait of who they were, separately and together, beyond the lurid headlines.

The film is also an engaging insiders’ look at ’70s New York, in all its high-and-low, center-of-the-cultural-universe glory. With its unapologetic low-budget aesthetic, the doc has a raw quality that suits its punk milieu. Without the bucks to license Sex Pistols songs, Garcia makes wise use of tracks by their contemporaries, notably the Heartbreakers, in addition to John Roome’s moody score. Fans in London and a handful of U.S. cities are getting the chance to see the film on the big screen during a series of theatrical screenings scheduled around its Dec. 9 video release.

In addition to the colorful assortment of scenesters who appear in the film, Garcia (whose previous documentary subjects include the Clash and Johnny Thunders) has gathered a strong collection of archival footage and stills. All that’s glaringly missing is the sound of Sid’s voice; he’s more seen than heard in Sad Vacation. But there are several snippets of Nancy’s infamous squall, both with and without the English accent she affected during her final months with Sid in Manhattan, on the heels of the Sex Pistols’ breakup. That period of 1978, when she took on the role of the suddenly solo Sid’s manager, lasted less than two months, and its ups and downs are vividly conveyed in the film.

The Sid and Nancy who emerge from the talking-head testimony aren’t different from the title characters of Alex Cox’s 1986 feature about them, just more nuanced and less hilarious. In very different circumstances, their trajectories were the stuff of tragedy almost from birth. With a drug-addicted mother, he faced all the rejection and neglect that such a setup entails. Her well-to-do parents’ attentiveness proved at least as harmful: In response to their distress over her apparent personality disorder, a doctor put her on phenobarbital when she was only a toddler.

The idea of Nancy Spungen as the one who ruined Vicious has been widely accepted over the years, but friends’ recollections paint a far less black-and-white dynamic. It’s no surprise that many attest to Sid’s essential affability or that the words “abrasive,” “whiny,” “vampiric” and “nightmare” pop up regarding Spungen. But one of the more striking aspects of Garcia’s film is how many people go on the record speaking of her smarts, sense of humor and likability. “She was the sweetest,” the New York Dolls’ Sylvain Sylvain enthuses.

The late underground cable TV host Efrom Allen remembers her as obnoxious, strong and forthcoming — i.e., a great interview. While Sid played the naughty kid, she did most of the talking. By then he had long since embraced the role of “the caricature of punk, the avatar of punk,” as Sex Pistols roadie Steve “Roadent” Conolly incisively puts it. He notes that the name Vicious was given to sweet kid John Simon Ritchie as something of a joke, because he was much the opposite.

Whether Nancy’s bloody death was a drug-fueled accident, a double suicide half-fulfilled, or the work of yet-to-be-identified dealers who passed through the couple’s sordid digs, Sad Vacation takes no stand, although most of its interview subjects reject the notion that Sid, who died of a heroin overdose before he could stand trial for the crime, could have intentionally murdered the woman he loved, and who he loved to brawl with.

In an especially illuminating insight, one friend observes that all the energy devoted to getting Spungen out of the entourage and Sid’s life — efforts initiated by Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren — probably caused more damage by fueling the duo's us-against-the-world mentality. Among many sad truths about Sid and Nancy is the fact that they were only 21 and 20, respectively, when they died.

By speaking with people who were there, in the clubs and streets and walkups of a battered city, Garcia pushes past mainstream cliches about tabloid figures. At various points in the film, with an artful sense of foreboding, the camera tracks through the corridors of the Chelsea, a storied haven for artists, druggies, prostitutes and other outsiders. And in a fine example of the echoes and disparities among the doc’s chorus of talking heads, two former residents differ on whether it was the upper floors or the lower ones where the greatest danger lay.

Production company: Chip Baker Films
Narrator: Huey Morgan
With: Efrom Allen, Rachel Amodeo, Roberta Bayley, Gaye Black, Den Browne, Leee Black Childers, Victor Colicchio, Steve “Roadent” Conolly, Donna Destri, Kenny “Stinker” Gordon, Bob Gruen, John Holmstrom, M. Henry Jones, Hellin Killer, Walter Lure, “Neon” Leon Matthews, Honest John Plain, Howie Pyro, Gino Riccardi, Cynthia Ross, Andy Shernoff, Casino Steel, Phyllis Stein, Sylvain, Allan Tannenbaum, Kevin Tooley, Ned Van Zandt
Director: Danny Garcia
Screenwriters: Danny Garcia, Brett Dunford
Producers: Chip Baker, Hilary Hodgson, Skafish, Brett Dunford, Phyllis Stein, Luigi Scorcia
Executive producers: Danny Garcia, César Méndez, Vanessa D’Amelio
Camera: César Méndez, Guy Rhodes, Rick Seefried, Fabien Greenberg, Lucy Yang, Tony Notarberardino, Mark Brady, Luigi Scorcia
Editors: César Méndez, Chip Baker
Composer: John Roome

95 minutes