As the shreds of the so-called British Film Industry quivers in the shadow of Hollywood’s big, bullying three-dimensional behemoth … one of the few things we can do that they can’t is create a musical biopic with balls. Possibly because of the lawyers, possibly because Americans are, reputedly, just so darn polite, their biopics tend to be limp, deferential affairs. Even when they do admit to their subject’s faults (like, say, in Ray - 2004 - or Walk The Line - 2005) they still manage to eulogise and forgive.
However, you can always rely on an independent British film to show you the grit and grime behind the glamour of the music business. From fictional depictions like That’ll Be The Day (1973) and Stardust (1974) through Slade’s Flame (1975) to the ugly truths of Sid And Nancy (1986), Twenty-Four Hour Party People (2002) and Closer (2004) we never seem to tire of demonstrating just what arseholes our musical heroes are. Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is no exception but, in this case, its subject, Ian Dury, wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Taking the spotlight, centre-stage as Dury, is Andy Serkis who, as has been demonstrated many times in the past, is a very physical performer. He has shown impressive physical prowess and a mime-like finesse in throwing shapes for his pioneering of the mo-cap technology that nowadays underpins the creation of most cartoons and video games. He turned a soulless, mechanical process and made it an art.
He brings this same flexibility to the jerky, stumbling, spastic shapes of Ian Dury. His transformation into Dury is, like Tom Hardy’s transformation into Charles Bronson last year, quite extraordinary. Shedding weight to give his face the appropriate lined, worn look, and spending months exercising just one side of his body, he manages to ape Dury’s Polio-derived gait with painful accuracy … but the real revelation is the voice. Those deep, gravely, Estuary tones are reproduced remarkably, especially when he is performing Dury’s trademark numbers, which were all re-recorded with him by all the surviving members of the Blockheads. It is an extraordinary performance fully deserving of the BAFTA it didn’t win and the Oscar for which it wasn’t even nominated. The fact that neither this nor Hardy’s performance last year have received major award recognition is a travesty which leaves me almost lost for words.
Director Mat Whitehouse has learned a lot from his mentor Michael Winterbottom about shooting in a documentary style. Consequently, the aesthetic of the film is convincingly in-keeping with the grainy, poorly-lit music-films of the seventies. It is clumsy and amateurish and aggressive and passionate, much like its subject and very much like the Punk music scene through which he rose. Like Dury’s lyrics, there is a simple, dirty poetry to this film. At one point, musing about his disability, Dury comments: “Polio … it’s like love … There’s no cure for it!”
Dury comes across as a git, frankly. He’s needy but endlessly uncaring as a husband, selfish and manipulative as a boyfriend, mute and mostly useless as a father. But, as with all artists, he is surrounded and supported by people who tolerate all this because they love him. They love his passion and his talent, his angry joie de vive and his frequent moments of desperation.
To its credit, the film steadfastly refuses to sentimentalise Dury or even sympathise with him, he is a true grotesque and we see him here, warts and all. He calls the song Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll “ … a celebration for The Outsiders … The Uglies!” He is definitely an outsider but, in-keeping with his merciless refusal to feel sorry for himself, this status energises him.
Ray Winston, by contrast, gives a restrained, dignified performance as Dury’s father, appearing only in dreamy flashbacks. He represents a vanished, steadfast generation and the greatest lesson he teaches his little boy is about standing up proudly and hiding your pain inside.
By contrast, the other flashback narrative gives us Toby Jones as a cruel, disappointed warder at the Boys’ Home where Dury is deposited by his father. Here he is brutalised in ways that only young boys can conceive but this, sadly, is Dury Snr’s plan - to have his son beaten so severely and so often that, like metal, it makes him stronger. There is a mission statement on the wall in the dormitory: Men Made Here!
This is why the adult Dury maintains his steely exterior at inappropriate times with the people to whom he should actually be opening up.
We’re over an hour into the film by the time he first burst onto the stage as a Blockhead, spasming and scary like some brutal Bauhaus clown. But the unique man and his unique music were created by his unique circumstances. To appreciate the music (as, presumably, we must already do, since we’ve chosen to watch a film about it) we must experience the emotional swamps from which it arose like marsh-gas and mouldy corpses.
Sadly, once he achieves some modicum of fame, he promptly falls into all the stereotypical drink and drug traps of the untrained pop-stars of the time. I suppose this had to be here, since it’s the name of the film, but it does serve to make the whole project feel more familiar and far less unique.
Never-the-less, if you, like me, have always been intrigued and exhilarated by the music and more than a little curious about the man who wrote it, your appreciation of it will grow exponentially with having seen this film. Furthermore, if you feared that Serkis would be fated to forever play henchmen and heavies in expensive Hollywood productions (his role as Lumpy in King Kong - 2005 – Mr Grin in Stormbreaker – 2006 - and Captain Haddock in the up-coming Tintin movie all spring to mind) then fear not, with Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll he has proven himself to be a formidable leading man.
Even though BAFTA, this year, elected to go with the dapper charm of Colin Firth instead of Serkis’ scary, sweaty energy … his day will come. There are unfathomable depths of talent within that man, much more than can be contained within the fragile framework of Britain’s nebulous film-industry.
Dir: Mat Whitecross
Stars: Andy Serkis, Bill Milner, Olivia Williams, Naomie Harris
Dur: 115 mins