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Movie Review: Who Killed Nancy?

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Be careful playing with that — someone’s going to get hurt.

The last time legendary DJ and director Don Letts, one of the more authoritative voices in Alan G. Parker’s Who Killed Nancy?, saw Sid Vicious with girlfriend Nancy Spungen, he witnessed Sid repeatedly poking Nancy with a knife, sticking her until she said, “Ow, Sid, that hurts, be careful — someone’s going to get hurt.”

Someone did get hurt. Someone got murdered, as Mick Jones of The Clash, Don Letts’ famous co-founder of Big Audio Dynamite, succinctly sang.

Who Killed Nancy?, a documentary-style series of interviews, occasionally interrupted by hyper-stylized re-enactments of the crime, opened this weekend at the Cinema Village. Who Killed Nancy?, directed by Alan G. Parker, is not really an exploration of what happened on that tragic night at the Chelsea Hotel when Sex Pistols’ ex-bassist Sid Vicious reportedly stabbed his longtime girlfriend, American Nancy Spungen. It’s more of a shopping list of interviews about of what sort of junkie Sid was. A more appropriate title might be “Who or What Killed Sid?” And the answer would be drugs and maybe his mother, Anne Beverly. After all, she reportedly brought him drugs on many occasions including the night of his overdose, but we won’t know more about that deadly relationship because Anne Beverly commmitted suicide in 1996.

Digressions aside, the PR material for this film presents Sid and Nancy as a modern day Romeo and Juliet, but this film has more in common with Much Ado About Nothing, as in Mr. Parker brings nothing new to the discussion. Not that the tragic, drug-fueled deaths of these two young people are nothing, but Mr. Parker’s documentary adds little to the speculation about what happened that night in the Chelsea Hotel. Shoddy police work, mysterious figures going in and out of the room that night, piles of cash that may or may not have been piled high on bureaus do not change the basic elements of the story: it is a modern day tragedy, not of a Romeo and Juliet-like love doomed because of family tension, but of the stark tragedy of drug addiction, the suicidal, not homicidal kind.

Along with glimpses of Don Letts, there are many fascinating interviews within the film, making the whole project worthwhile, not so much for illuminating murder mysteries, but for creating a capsule of a certain time and place, New York City and London, when the punks were busy creating a great rock and roll ruse. The whole movie could have centered around the interview with photographer Peter Gravelle, then Peter Kodick, who was present on Sid’s last night alive. Gravelle has the gravitas and the measured, weathered voice of a punk James Mason. He seems a reliable witness while at the same time being somewhat elusive.

Some of the other interviews were not so memorable. Part of the problem with the film is the inconsistent and questionable identifications. Is “original London punk” an official honorific? Or, just by virtue of being a punk, is there no need for other description? There are many interviews in Who Killed Nancy? and sometimes they are identified and sometimes they are not, and I for one, who lived during this riotous time and enjoyed some of its ravages, could have used constant reminders (more serviceable than “original punk”) of who these talking heads are.

One interviewee I didn’t need an introduction to was Handsome Dick Manitoba from the Dictators, proprietor of the well-known East Village bar, Manitoba’s. He is certainly notable, but simply identified as “original New York punk” as are a half dozen other interviewees. Was the man with the Roman collar an original New York punk? Is the witness now a priest? I missed it.

One of the oddest interviews was that of Alan Parker, filmmaker, with himself as Alan Parker, official biographer of Sid Vicious. Parker, who wrote a book upon which this documentary is based, is, of course, an authority, but he is making the movie; that would seem to be enough of a statement. There is a certain Spinal Tap element of a filmmaker interviewing himself about a rock star, but then again, there’s a certain Spinal Tap element to every rock and roll movie ever made after Rob Reiner’s touchstone.

One hour and 24 minutes into the documentary, and it begins to fully explore the haphazard police investigation into what really happened that night in the Chelsea Hotel. Did Sid stab Nancy? Did Nancy stab herself? Why was the knife wiped clean? Did a third party, perhaps a mysterious “Michael,” kill Nancy to rob her of the recent cash haul from Sid’s now iconic “My Way” venture? It’s a long wait to get to the purported theme of the film, but ultimately, from what is presented, it’s a dead-end speculation, if you forgive the pun.

The single stab wound inflicted upon Nancy was and is reported not to be enough of a injury to kill her. She dragged herself into the bathroom and eventually bled to death. She could have just as easily dragged herself into the hallway of the hotel and gotten help. Her drug-induced paralysis, the fact she wouldn’t, couldn’t help herself, is the true tragedy.

A movie all about Sid Vicious, born John Simon Ritchie, never really gets to the root of who this young man was. People talk about his charisma, about how he was “the trophy everyone wanted,” but whatever that trophy was, it isn’t discernible in Who Killed Nancy? His troubled childhood is simply mentioned. He is thrown out of the Sex Pistols but that isn’t really explained. What is discussed, in alarming detail, is Sid’s violent tendencies.

Some of the interviewees claim that Sid wouldn’t have, couldn’t have killed Nancy, but others talk about Sid breaking bottles in people’s faces, the already mentioned teasing with the knife, and finally, friend Mark Helfrond describes Sid hanging a cat for no apparent reason, holding the cat up by an impromptu noose until the animal, screaming, “urinated and defecated on Sid’s shoes.” The animal died. The discussion is over. Who killed Nancy? Sid Vicious did. Let’s call it involuntary manslaughter and have done with this sad story.

Who Killed Nancy? is also available on DVD.

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About Kate Shea Kennon

  • A Geek Girl

    Darn it K! I was really hoping this would be good. But I think you’re definitely right about the fact that this was no love story. It was a horrifying tragedy. Attempts to romanticize this relationship are honestly just sick.

    And I’m sure I trust the word of people who were there–zonked out on drugs and booze themselves at the time. 30 years later they’re clean and sober, and surely rehab must restore their memories. Yeah. Sure. Right.

    Great review, sadly 😛

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