Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll Review
Andy Serkis has come a long way since Gollum. He’s proved his versatility in a number of roles, including real life figures Van Gogh and Einstein, and his Rigaud in Little Dorrit was an exceptional screen villain, grotesque certainly, but always convincing and never crossing the line into absurdity. So who better to play Ian Dury than Serkis, who looks like him, sounds like him and has captured the mannerisms and body language with quite uncanny accuracy. Add to that the talents of painter Peter Blake, who has contributed some delightful pop art musical montage sequences, recalling the psychedelic exuberance of the Sgt. Pepper album cover, and it seems that the movie can’t go wrong… But unfortunately it does rather lose its way in a maze of too many strands and stylistic excess.
It begins promisingly enough, using the device of Dury on stage telling his life story to the audience, surreally intermingled with appropriate flashbacks, gig and rehearsal footage and the home birth of Dury’s son. Hunched over his walking stick at the microphone, Dury recalls his boyhood self (Wesley Nelson) and describes how he contracted polio from a swimming pool, with accompanying newsreel-style footage and strident music. There’s a great sequence of an early pub gig where Dury’s unpolished punk style isn’t appreciated by the clientele, and he meets his soon-to-be mistress, Denise (Naomie Harris). Detailed scenes of Dury’s family life follow, where things fall apart as he tries to have it both ways with Denise and wife, Betty (Olivia Williams), with son, Baxter (Bill Milner) rather caught in the crossfire. Dury’s boyhood is developed into an ongoing blue-tinged strand, featuring his often absent father (Ray Winstone) and life at an austere school for the disabled, where he endures harassment from cruel teacher Hargreaves (Toby Jones).
As things progress, son Baxter features increasingly prominently as a viewpoint character and his own private troubles become another of the film’s issues. This is the first problematical sign, as the two boyhood strands have so many similarities that they tend to clash rather than compliment, and the two boy actors of much the same age also look very alike. More and more of such meandering scenes accumulate and one becomes increasingly aware that, apart from the odd rehearsal, Dury the musician has been largely forgotten. Around an hour in, the film suddenly wakes up to this fact and provides another excellent Peter Blake montage and a rumbustious stage performance of the titular ‘Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll’.
Hooray! we shout, and indeed these scenes are terrific in their own right; but unaccompanied as they are by further narrative footage of Ian Dury the public figure, they feel isolated, like pop video interludes in the ongoing family saga. The family material would be fine backstory, but the big problem with Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is that it makes Dury the warts-and-all family man the main story and the musical career—the thing of most interest to the cinemagoer—the backstory. What is completely absent is a sense of the trajectory of Dury’s rise from unpromising beginnings to become one of the best-loved pop stars of the late ’70s. Instead we get a version of Dury from his son’s perspective, and there is too much of Baxter’s own story in the film. Predictably these extended scenes of family disharmony become tiresome and have the feel of episodes of EastEnders, whilst Dury’s fame and success is only shown tangentially, as in the acquisition of a big house and swimming pool.
Think what might have been included. There is little about the general punk/new wave scene, nothing about Stiff Records and no sign of Dury’s illustrious Stiff contemporaries, such as Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe, with whom he toured. Dury’s most successful single, the No. 1 ‘Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick’, is again only shown in isolation, in a frankly bizarre sequence where the Blockheads perform it underwater in Dury’s swimming pool. Director Mat Whitecross’ stylistic flourishes are for the most part effective, but this is without question a step into the plain ridiculous. It’s hard to imagine an American music biopic taking such a tortuous approach to its subject, and the attainment of broad appeal doesn’t seem high on the filmmakers’ agenda.
However, towards the end, the film redeems itself somewhat when the public Ian Dury emerges in the controversy over his ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ single and his defiance as a disabled person, which was branded by others as political incorrectness. Serkis is marvellously fulminating in these scenes, and indeed his performance is peerless throughout, propping up a patchy and episodic movie and lending it a degree of worthiness (and the score it receives below). There are some good things about Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, and the renditions of Dury’s musical numbers are, in themselves, a joy; but overall it registers as a misfire and a lost opportunity to make a rounded and accessible film about a homegrown pop legend.