The storied lives and ugly deaths of punk hero Sid Vicious and his girlfriend and manager Nancy Spungen may not be the freshest topic for a film — the original subtitle for director Danny Garcia’s Sad Vacation: The Last Days of Sid and Nancy was the self-deprecating “Another Film on Sid & Nancy.” Countless documentaries have told their story along with that of Vicious’ band the Sex Pistols, and Alex Cox’s 1986 biopic Sid and Nancy has become a cult favorite. Who needs another film about rock’s saddest couple?
With documentaries like The Rise and Fall of the Clash and the recent Looking for Johnny (which told the story of another punk pioneer, Johnny Thunders), Garcia has taken on the largely thankless role of punk-rock historian. All historians have a specialty, and Garcia’s appears to be the mid-to-late-1970s New York City scene that centered on music clubs CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, giving us all-time great bands including the Ramones and Talking Heads.
Garcia’s Sad Vacation adds another chapter to that history by focusing on several months in 1978 when Vicious and Spungen lived at Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel after the Sex Pistols broke up, culminating in Spungen’s suspected murder and Vicious’ death by drug overdose.
Garcia also realized that previous films on the topic neglected to interview most of the couple’s friends, a ragtag group of musicians, hustlers and oddball characters living at the Chelsea Hotel. Their input allows a more balanced and intimate portrait of two cultural icons while shedding light on Spungen’s still-unsolved murder. Vicious was charged with the crime and died before going to trial, but those who believe in his innocence are legion — especially among the friends who knew him best, as seen in Sad Vacation.
New York City’s original punks may be getting old and gray but they haven’t forgotten their heyday. Among those interviewed for Sad Vacation are Sylvain Sylvain (New York Dolls), Walter Lure (The Heartbreakers), scene photographers Bob Gruen and Roberta Bayley and former Johnny Thunders tour manager Leee Black Childers. Each has colorful stories to tell and new perspectives on the past tempered by age and experience.
Most remember Vicious as a sweet-natured kid who spiraled out of control through his mutually destructive and drug-fueled relationship with the notoriously young-and-troubled Spungen. (She was 20 when she died; Vicious was 21.) But Spungen also has her supporters here — probably for the first time on film.
The ultra-low-budget Sad Vacation looks as grimy and worn as its subjects on their worst five-day bender, but that only means it lives up to the punk ideal. It even seems fitting that the film didn’t have the budget to license a single Sex Pistols song, especially since the music of lesser-known period punk bands like Pure Hell and Skafish works just fine on the soundtrack. It’s easy to imagine the film’s subjects approving of those choices, along with the film’s warts-and-all approach to telling their still-relevant story.
Sad Vacation: The Last Days of Sid and Nancy screens at Zeitgeist Films Nov. 21-23 at 9:30 p.m. More info here.