Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

UK (2010) Dir. Mat Whitecross

Biopics serve one of two purposes – either to pay tribute to an unsung hero, or to reveal the true story of someone warts and all, even if it means shattering a few ideals in the process. The veracity of these dramatisations will always vary mostly if the film in question falls into the latter category, as this one does.

No doubt to younger audiences, the name Ian Dury won’t mean much beyond a passing acquaintance with his perennial number 1 hit from 1979 Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick. For us oldies he was a cheeky, witty, and caustic lyricist with a quiet raspy voice that was full of character, as well as brave man for pursuing his calling as a singer despite having been stricken with polio aged seven.

This film from Mat Whitecross, named after Dury’s seminal 1977 debut single, catches this element of Dury’s life, career and performances but isn’t shy in portraying him in a much darker light away from the limelight. Maybe it was the same tenacious refusal to be defined by and held back by his condition that made Dury’s personality so relentlessly abrasive and unyielding, thus appearing so objectionable.

Played by Andy Serkis, the film opens with Dury leading his band Kilburn and the High Roads through a rehearsal in his tiny front room while his wife Betty (Olivia Williams) is upstairs giving birth. This is a perfect illustration of the haphazard and unpredictable way Dury lived, tenderly holding his newborn son just moments after furiously sacking his drummer.  

The basic backstory of Dury’s life and further key moments of exposition are told via Dury himself on stage as if was part of his act, with meta asides and cartoon affectations to speed up the process. This quirky approach suits Dury’s unconventional flair yet his story isn’t so light – beginning with being left his father (Ray Winstone), whom he doted on, at a boarding school for the disabled.

With his left leg effectively useless, Dury had to wear a padded brace on it, later aided with a walking stick, giving him an awkward, lopsided gait he managed to adapt to, yet this didn’t stop him from getting on with his life. Along with Baxter (Bill Milner), Dury and Betty had an elder daughter Jemima (Charlotte Beaumont) but this wasn’t enough to keep the marriage together.    

At the Kilburn’s final disastrous gig that saw Dury fall out with/fire his long time friend and collaborator Russell Hardy (Mackenzie Crook sporting a worse haircut than Gareth Keenan’s), two blessings walked into his life – teenage fan Denise (Naomie Harris) later his lover, and musician and future song writing partner Chaz Jankel (Tom Hughes).

Both of these bore the brunt of Dury’s wildly protean moods and personality foibles on different levels, a result of his drive to create but on his own terms. It is these instances where Dury is portrayed as a brute and megalomaniac, demanding everything but giving nothing in return unless he felt like it. As charismatic and down to earth as he appeared on TV, this perception suggests a Jekyll & Hyde scenario and a very unpleasant man to be around.  

Paul Viragh’s script doesn’t delve into the whys and wherefores of Dury’s behaviour, outside of his experiences at the disabled school, bullied by an orderly named Hargreaves (Toby Jones). Later when Dury, now famous, returns to the school, he learns that Hargreaves committed suicide a few years before; “That’s made my day that has!” Dury smiles, leaving the headmistress shocked.

The most surprising element of this tale, which really consolidates its central message of not letting a disability rule your life, is that Dury did live the sex, drugs, and Rock and Roll lifestyle, which many of us would automatically assume he wouldn’t or couldn’t do. Young Baxter was exposed to wild parties, drugs and booze and at early age whilst living with Dury and Denise leading him on a rebellious path of his own, yet Dury never wanted Baxter to follow him in that way.

Interestingly, the chart success of Dury and The Blockheads in the UK is not a priority of the narrative, almost missing the fact he had a no 1 hit single (the song is eventually performed underwater in one surreal scene). Whitecross and Viragh instead felt the real capital is in Dury’s eventful, tumultuous personal life and less about how finally achieving success made him feel.

Dury went off the rails like many a star has but the correlation between the two is barely noted, possibly since his personality and central ideals never really changed. Andy Serkis is a brilliant mimic as we know and he captures every bit if Dury’s intensity, suffering, joie de vivre, anarchy, intelligence and humanity, physically and emotionally, in both the drama and in concert performances, singing the songs himself.

Support come from a stellar cast, headed by Naomie Harris, arguably one of the most underrated actresses today, young Bill Milner as Baxter, a sort of gauche mini-me with a worse haircut, and Olivia Williams as the saintly and tolerant Betty. May other familiar faces rock up in this film, including Ralph “Finchy” Ineson as Dury’s brutish mate The Sulphate Strangler.  

By tapping into the spirit of Dury’s unfettered and decadent approach to life, Whitecross opts for an arty presentation style that is a blend of black comedy and tongue-in-cheek frippery and ingenious use of precision editing and quirky effects to drive home the gravity of a scene – Dury’s psychotically haunting prison freak out and the urgent dual Spartacus performance come to mind.

One of the more unconventional biopics you’ll ever see, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll does at least deliver what it says in the title. It may not endear Dury to new viewers and might appal older fans to see him portrayed like this, but as Dury himself said in Spasticus/Autisticus: “You may not comprehend my tale or understand”.

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