Like its subject – Ian Dury – this is a rock biopic you will like
SEX & DRUGS & ROCK & ROLL
Directed by Mat Whitecross
Starring Andy Serkis, Naomie Harris, Olivia Williams, Ray Winstone
Once a simple rags-to-riches tale, ideally with a young death for a tragic finale, the rock biopic has assumed a more psychological mantle in recent years. It’s no longer enough to celebrate a life in music – The Buddy Holly Story, Elvis The Movie, The Doors, even Sid & Nancy – an artist’s demons need to be probed and exposed.
Walk The Line was arguably the trailblazer, suggesting Johnny Cash’s troubled relationship with his ornery Pa lay behind the country legend’s pill-popping, self-destructive ways. Control and Nowhere Boy, both scripted by Matt Greenhalgh, likewise gave us pop star as tormented soul, with epilepsy and failed marriage (Ian Curtis) and mother complex (John Lennon) at the root of their troubled genius. The music was almost secondary, and, one couldn’t help feeling, the films were the better for it.
sex&drugs&rock&roll – let’s call it SDRR – tries hard to do something similar for Ian Dury, vaudevillean bard of the punk music hall, later to become national institution and champion of the disabled. It’s a winning proposition. Behind Dury’s verbal dexterity and notoriously prickly charisma lay an idyllic boyhood blighted by polio. Confined to hospital for 18 months, left with a twisted body and one leg in callipers, Dury then endured Dickensian tortures as a boarder at Chaily Craft School (motto: Men Made Here) before release into High Wycombe Grammar and the joyous discovery of art school and Elvis, twin liberators of an entire generation of British rock stars.
It isn’t hard to imagine the damage those experiences would wreak on a psyche as intelligent, gifted and (deep down) warm as Dury’s. Add in late success (he was 35 when he charted with New Boots And Panties!! as an honorary punk) and a fêted roster of the hits and anthems he made with The Blockheads, and you surely have the ingredients of a demon movie.
It almost arrives. At the heart of any biopic is the central role and Andy Serkis delivers a spellbinding turn as Dury. Replicating Dury’s cheeky chappie onstage persona is admirable enough; more astonishing (at least to anyone who knew Ian) is Serkis’ uncanny incarnation of Dury in person, variously charming, belligerent, foul, pathetic and awesome. Serkis is a known chameleon – cue his spooky turn as Gollum in The Lord Of The Rings – but here he excels with a bravura performance surely destined for awards glory.
Alongside him come powerful, simpático portrayals of the women in Dury’s life; his wife Betty (Olivia Williams) and long-suffering girlfriend Denise (Naomie Harris), while Ray Winstone, as Dury’s Cockney father, has only to play himself.
The film is no tacky costume drama, either (unlike, say, Stoned), convincingly evoking the grimy ’70s (contrasted with Dury’s sartorial panache), and boasting a soundtrack supplied by the Blockheads. The unruly camaraderie of band life is well captured, its demands made even more problematic by Dury’s confrontational style – when he first meets Chaz Jankel, Dury invites his future songwriting partner to “do us a favour and fuck off”. While the film, probably wisely, avoids getting too involved in the punk insurrection (there’s no sighting of fellow travellers like The Clash or Elvis Costello), we do see Dury bemoaning “the Pistols ripping off my razorblade earring idea”.
Yet for all its strengths, SDRR fumbles its central story. Is that story how Dury swapped a failed pub rock outfit for a gifted band led by a musician who could supply catchy accompaniments for his pun-drenched odes to working-class life? Is it how Dury surpassed his disability to claim fame? How an essentially middle-class kid reinvented himself as a Mockney music hall turn? Or how he seemed compelled to alienate those who loved and supported him?
SDRR never settles on a clear narrative arc, hindered by direction that veers between grainy social vérité, lavish pop promo fantasy, snatches of so-what animation and over-dressed recreations of Dury’s live shows. By way of a central conceit the film tries to become a story of sons and absent fathers. There are flashbacks to Dury’s relationship with his father, an Essex boxer and chauffeur, about whom he wrote the sentimental “My Old Man”. Meanwhile, Dury struggles to bond with his own son, Baxter (who advised on the film), a troubled teenager.
There’s a strained quality about this. As Will Birch’s imminent biography makes clear, Dury had a loving mother (and two close aunts) who were his principal support through the ghastly years of Chaily, but who are nowhere glimpsed. Instead come endless replays of Winstone striding manfully in slow-mo, overcoat and trilby. So Ian idealised his dad – yes, we get it!
Dury’s involvment with his son was, unsurprisingly, complex. “Are we posh?” asks Baxter at one point. “More arts and crafts,” growls Dury, who ‘helped’ Baxter by lending him a minder (the wonderfully named Sulphate Strangler) who was generous with his drugs. With Dury’s problematic relationships with Betty and Denise convincingly handled, this is a warts’n’all portrait of a diamond geezer who had no shortage of rough edges. Asked to write a song celebrating the year of the disabled, he delivered “Spasticus Autisticus”, which was promptly banned by the BBC; an episode well captured here.
Dury didn’t die young in a plane crash or of a drugs overdose. He endured and mellowed before succumbing to cancer at age 56, leaving sex&drugs&rock&roll with an anti-climactic ending. Like its subject, though, you can’t help liking the film for all its faults.