Sad Vacation: The Last Days of Sid and Nancy
(Chip Baker Films)
Director Danny Garcia’s Sad Vacation is a 2016 documentary about the last days of Sid and Nancy. Just in case those names are not as immediately recognizable as George Washington, Jesus, and Santa Claus, Sid is Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols and Nancy is Nancy Spungen, the Yoko Ono of punk rock. Sad Vacation is a visceral compilation of interviews which showcase people intimately involved with the forsaken couple. The commentators, cultivated from the vivid scenes of 1978 London and NYC, illuminate the personalities of the two lovers. Some of these people had colorful names like Neon Leon, Skafish, and Howie Pyro. Also, punk legends from The Heartbreakers, The Boys, The Adverts, The Dictators, and others help guide us through the murky quagmire of the heroin soaked final days which concluded with Spungen’s murder and Vicious’ overdose, at the ages of 20 and 21 years old, respectively.
Sad Vacation is ripe with outstanding footage. The film does unearth people of the inner circle of these scenes. This of course, as many of these docs do, reveal early punks as quirky yet pretentious ‘artists’ that were involved with Malcolm McLaren, Blondie, and Andy Warhol’s Factory. The intoxicating behind the scenes photographs, balanced with new interviews, plunge into the moments of these two doomed rockers.
Sad Vacation begins with the mysterious lure of the Chelsea Hotel in 1978 and the fog in which the tale is embedded. The film adds the element of a mystery, supposing contrasting theories regarding Spungen’s murder. Some think Sid could not have murdered; some do, but clearly as an accident. People who were in the hotel room that night are interviewed. The question, if answered ‘yes’, then yields ‘why’. This is the pith of Sad Vacation; the attributes and incendiary attitudes of our stars were violent and passionate. The film then has their friends and peers paint Sid and Nancy’s personalities for the audience. Sid was a fabricated punk fulfilling this void inside. Regardless of his notoriety, Nancy was the true antagonist, constantly pushing buttons.
Sad Vacation continues quickly with late 1978, where Nancy was leading Sid around on a leash to reinvent this recent ex-Sex Pistol, barking commands and holding taut reigns. We see them on a TV interview, The People and Efrom Allen. The local TV host on NY cable, Efrom Allen, offers his view, “she was an obnoxious woman, but one strong woman.” This interview clearly portrays her commanding presence, responding to questions directed at Sid. She spouted all of her future plans for Sid, his itinerary and his balls firmly in her hand.
In late August, 1978, Sid and Nancy were tumultuously stumbling through their 17 month relationship. They were living at the Chelsea Hotel, the epicenter of provocateurs, artists, writers, punks, junkies and losers. The major currencies of the Chelsea were drugs, prostitution, art, and music. It was an iconic and desired destination. But, as Victor Colicchio reports in a gloomy tone, “in one night, every bit of history was over shadowed”.
And that is the common thread here, how Sid and Nancy were destroying themselves and could not help but scorch anyone close to them in their wake. A photographer, Bob Gruen, was asked (no, not hired; Nancy had no money) to follow them and documented extensively these quiet, sincere moments between the two. But, he notes the aura of death they emitted. “They looked terrible, like junkies, who hadn’t slept in days; which is what they were.”
Sad Vacation explores their destructive relationship through interviewees’ astonishment and disbelief and curiosity. While others fully understood how these two latched to each other. Nancy was an intelligent, focused woman with an agenda. And Sid Vicious was child with a simple heart, looking for someone to guide him into being special and adored. The film moves into two bandying parallel timelines, like a crosscut of two cars teasing out their impending crash.
The documentary delves into the environments and families which created these perfect tragedies to find each other. Sid’s past was anchored by an awful, addict mother. Nancy’s history shows her as “a difficult child”. Parents stifled her with “phenobarbital as a toddler”, reports childhood friend, Phyllis Stein. Donna Destri, another friend, agrees, “That’s unconscionable. Maybe her mother didn’t know. Nancy was difficult.” This desperation propelled the parents’ decision to send Nancy to a boarding school. This repression manifests in Nancy’s yearning to be popular and in a scene of prominence. Vicious was seen as showing “a permanent snarl, but he had a sweetness to him. And then Nancy showed up.” Peers often relay Vicious earning a reputation of a good kid with a blossoming persona, a character. But there was this dichotomy of Sid’s natural tendencies and who he became under Nancy’s control.
Stephen “Roadent” Connolly was a roadie for the Pistols. Connolly describes many aspects of Vicious before and after Nancy. Connolly adds heft and vivacious tales to Sad Vacation. Connolly comments on Vicious coming into all his rock and roll dreams; but, then, struggling with maintaining this image of the ultimate punk which was contrary to his innate personality. “Sid became canonized to set the (punk) style in stone. He became a caricature of punk. He famously invented pogoing. Sid became the avatar to what punk should look like.” Connolly continues his adversarial explanations, “he was called vicious because he was so soft,” as Roadent tells of Sid playing with kids and being gentle. But Sid’s speed dealing belies an aspect of that innocence, as that was Sid’s supplemental job as he toured with Sex Pistols.
Simultaneous to Sid’s ascent to idol, Nancy ends up in NYC living on 23rd street, hanging with Debbie Harry and New York Dolls and Iggy Pop. She was bedding most of her heroes at a steady pace and feeding a growing heroin habit. In the film, the praise pours in, in defense of Nancy. In this NYC, memories of people adoring her and enjoying her company, jubilant stories, are paraded to the audience. But, the audience is then equally told tales of Nancy’s depression and bratty antics and suicide attempts. Her aspirations conveyed that she was very smart, but did what it took to make money. This, to no surprise, was as a stripper and dominatrix. She controlled and commanded men for a living. This brought her excessive money and drugs. But her drive was to be a groupie, to drop names and radiate importance. This drive flipped the crowd’s females to bitter and spiteful onlookers. As that acrimony intensified, she fled to London to specifically go be a groupie for the Sex Pistols.
Sid wanted to be a rock and roll icon and survive off of sex and drugs. Sid and Pistols’ singer, Johnny Rotten, were best friends. Rotten wedged Glen Matlock (original bassist) out to have Sid enter. And when Sid succeeded as a magnet for the spotlight; soon, Rotten resented his once close friend. As soon as the plane was on the London tarmac, Spungen ferreted onto the Pistols radar. And that’s when the story gets dark, the divisive explanations of pre and post Nancy shows Sid’s declining charm and wit and generosity. Heroin and Nancy’s selfish treachery eroded his soul.
But, again, all this is fodder for Sad Vacation‘s main question, did or could Sid Vicious kill Nancy? The questions lingers. While some say “no way”, a barrage of theories (murder-suicide unfulfilled, alternate killers, drug deals, Sid by mistake) surge.
Sad Vacation shows the looming fall of the Sex Pistols as they forge through a maligned US tour in 1978. Nancy was banned from joining as she was beginning her plan to manage him, already plotting his solo act. This was the demise of the band. Vicious’s inexperience and naiveté and Nancy’s touting his talent imploded the band. Plus, the band’s evading shows in NY, Chicago, LA, DC for sullen receptions in Texas and Midwestern states at disgruntled redneck bars pissed on the spirits of the Pistols.
The final act of the documentary delved deeply into the timeline of the couple’s descent on that October night; the drugs and violence, the arguments and isolation. Commentators all offer their assertions and confusion along with three major suspects who could have murdered Nancy instead of Sid. The last days of Sid are brutal if you stand rooting for him. From his mother’s involvement to the impotence of faraway friends as the slowly watched his decline. Sad Vacation has a sudden and odd introduction of an ominous voice over in the last bit, as they review theories. This was the only startling jut of the thorough and exquisite storytelling in Sad Vacation.
The final minutes of Sad Vacation show Sid in jail for Nancy’s murder, set against the stubborn wall that was the 1970’s NYPD. Maclolm McLaren becomes involved, hires Patty Hearst’s lawyer. In a solemn honest moment, friends admit to wanting Sid to stay incarcerated because he was clean. But denying bail for yourself looks guilty. Gruen again notes a “vibrant and healthy and sober” Sid Vicious. But the film moves into Howie Pyro’s recollection of visiting 63 Bank Street on Feb 2nd 1979 (with Jerry Only of The Misfits!). This first-hand account is depressing. Peter Gravell amends the story, “(Sid) got high after being sober. It was 79% pure heroin. Five weeks of being clean, he did too much.” He woke up and was apologetic. Well, he must have done more. Because, he was dead hours later. His mom, who had come to be with him for his trial, gave him the heroin.
Sad Vacation walks its audience through a tragic and desperate tale. The film examines the attitudes and forensics of Spungen’s murder. It also walks through the paths of each of these individuals who impacted so many in this genre. Sad Vacation is thorough and unapologetic. Garcia’s research and interviews does as much as it can to illuminate one of rock and roll’s great mysteries.