Back in the days before OPEC became a notable force on American street corners, high school, for most of us growing up in Detroit, meant one thing: a driver’s license. All we had to do was spend 12 weeks with a shop instructor, who was looking for a way to pick up a few extra bucks, in a Rambler Hornet, thoughtfully donated by a dealer who never dreamed of Renault. Then, the magic would be ours. Everything—from the drive-in theaters (now turned into strip malls) to the drive-in hamburger stands (now featuring a kiddy playland and ferns)—pointed toward the day when a set of car keys would be in hand, even if they were for a mother’s four-door Valiant. The car meant freedom, not as in the wild anarchy of On the Road, but the freedom to be your own person, to go somewhere, or even nowhere, aimlessly driving up and down the same streets.
The driver’s ed instructors weren’t quite as dense as we liked to think. Before receiving the certificates that brought us very close to cruising Woodward Avenue or racing away from the lights on Telegraph Road, we were ushered into the school auditorium for a film that achieved semi-cult status: Mechanized Death. It’s a documentary-style film that shows in unflinching detail the consequences of hurling 4,000-pound objects around with abandon. Blood, gore, screams, moans, death. Police officers shake their heads as they try to find meaning in the mayhem. Only metal pieces remain to be picked up. Twisted lives soak in the gasoline and oil.
The class of ’72 was not without those who died at the wheel and those who survived, with significant changes, critical road accidents. But the larger part, those of us who were more cautious as we sped through the night, have made it unscathed, influenced in larger part, I suspect, by the sense-searing images of Mechanized Death.
Scenes from that movie came back to me as I watched Sid and Nancy, a “docu-drama” that details the relationship between Sid Vicious (born the more prosaic John Ritchie), onetime member of the Sex Pistols, and Nancy Spungen, a heroin-addicted groupie from Huntington, PA. Both are ugly people, not merely in a physical sense, though there’s that, but in the way their lives unfold day after day like dirty sheets in a flophouse. They drive straight for destruction and doom, motivated only by their lust for pleasure and their sense of outsized self-importance. Even the nothing-sacred, saliva-stained Sex Pistols couldn’t contain the maniacal energy of the two. Although director Alex Cox, who cowrote the screenplay with Abbe Wool, does his best to make the two characters seem more appealing than they no doubt really were (the real Spungen was sent to a mental institution at age 11, was a drug addict by 16, and had a stint as a New York City topless dancer on her resume; Vicious and the Sex Pistols were known more for their spitting beer on the audience and getting into fights than for any musical ability in more than a rudimentary sense), the utter vulgarity of the pair is too much to overcome. They are monsters in leather.
Early on, Nancy, played with a gusty whining by Chloe Webb, introduces Sid to the dubious pleasures of smack. This is not your conventional boy-meets-girl scenario. In one scene Nancy affixes a chain with a lock around Sid’s neck. He asks where the key is. She replies, “What key?” Sid is stuck with the chain. With Nancy. And with the monkey on his back. Sid, portrayed by Gary Oldman, a Royal Shakespeare-trained actor who will undoubtedly be seen in less seamy roles, dies throughout the tale, although it is Nancy who bleeds to death in a cramped room in New York’s Chelsea Hotel from a knife wound he’s inflicted. (Sid died two months after Nancy: a heroin overdose.) The police, picking up the body and taking away Vicious, shake their heads in disgust. The audience does the same for over an hour-and-a-half.
In the years since gasoline has become somewhat dear, the automobile has never regained its status among the young. Detroit automakers are now returning to an anemic version of the “muscle car,” though it is targeted at the upscale professionals, not the people who ached for the original Mustang, GTO, or Duster. The replacements for the car radio and the 8-track player are the music video and the boom box. Youth now dreams of escape through the life of a renegade rocker, whether it be Quiet Riot or some less-known local group of bad boys or girls, Sid and Nancy should become required viewing for them. It is Mechanized Death for a new generation.
[Sid and Nancy; directed by Alex Cox; written by Alex Cox and Abbe Wool; Samuel Goldwyn Company]