Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

(2010) Directed by Mat Whitecross; Written by Paul Viragh; Starring: Andy Serkis, Olivia Williams, Ray Winstone, Bill Milner

Available on DVD

Rating: ***

When I heard that a biopic about the late British singer/songwriter Ian Dury was being filmed, I was initially intrigued.  Now I won’t go so far to proclaim that I was the only American who was looking forward to an Ian Dury film, but I’m not exactly going out on a limb by saying that he was never a household name in the States.  It’s probably the work with his group The Blockheads that he’s largely remembered for on this side of the Atlantic, especially his most famous song, referenced in the film’s title. He was a minor fixture on alternative radio during the sweet spot of the late 70s and early 80s, and he’s usually associated with the punk/new wave movement, although he was performing before that period.  I never knew very much about his life, so I hoped Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll would provide some answers.  Unfortunately, the attempt to chronicle Dury’s enigmatic life was only partially successful.  It’s a little sad that the film itself turned out fairly tepid, albeit wrapped in a great performance.

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll represents a rare starring role for Andy Serkis, who’s usually confined to supporting parts, most notably as Gollum (in CGI guise) in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  For once, we get a chance to see him play a flesh and blood character, and he does a convincing job as Ian Dury.  In fact, he’s probably the only compelling reason to see Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.  Serkis’ unflinching portrayal of Dury is certainly not Hallmark Hall of Fame material.  He doesn’t milk the role for sympathy, nor does he come across as particularly likable.  In fact, when we’re introduced to him, he’s rather unlikable -- selfish, immature, self-destructive and inflammatory at times.  Probably thanks to the strength of Serkis’ acting ability, however, the more we’re exposed to him, the more that he grows on us.  He’s not without his charms, especially his penchant for clever turns of the phrase.  Gradually, we begin to see (if not exactly understand) his ability to attract and repel others.

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll does not have the usual story arc that most biopics have.  It almost arbitrarily starts in the late 60s with his original band, and ends when his career has taken a downward turn, sometime in the 80s.  Large segments of his life are left underexplored or unexamined.  There is a great deal of emphasis on Dury’s physical condition throughout the film.  Frequent flashbacks underscore his childhood struggle with polio, the effects of which left him unable to walk without a leg brace.  Dury and polio are inextricably linked together, and his misfortune almost paradoxically provides some of his impetus to perform.  This is director Mat Whitecross’ first feature effort, and it shows, with his everything-but-the-kitchen sink approach.  Narratively speaking, it’s a bit of a mess.  During transitional scenes, the tone shifts into a cartoonish style, then lapses back to stark realism.  A few scenes scattered throughout serve as narrative markers, with Dury addressing a concert audience directly about his biographical details (reminiscent of Tom Hardy in Bronson).

One of the biggest problems with Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is that director Whitecross and screenwriter Paul Viragh prefer a narrower focus on Dury’s life, and as a result the rock & roll takes a backseat to the drama surrounding his family issues.  Very little time is spent covering the obstacles he encountered on his rise to fame, and not much is said about the impact of his music on the British music scene.  Other than a stray scene with a tantrum in a recording studio, and a few requisite cliché scenes of the struggling artist, we only catch a glimpse of the creative process.  It’s hard to discern what made him stand out, based on the scant details provided, almost as if the filmmakers consciously avoided addressing the aspects of Dury’s public persona and fame.  It’s also frustrating that there’s not nearly enough of Ian Dury’s music; just a few songs here and there to remind us that he was, in fact, a recording artist.  Serkis does a respectable job recreating Dury’s unique vocal presence, but the concert performances seem to lack the energy that the real concerts must have had.  There’s also no sense of time or place, with regard to the concerts.  Everything seems to take place at the same generic venue, probably due to the film’s meager budget.

We’re left with a flawed film about a flawed (but talented) individual, with few revelations about Ian Dury, or his unique musical talents.  Maybe the film was like the man: difficult to like, but difficult not to like.  It’s a reminder of how tricky it can be to capture the essence of anyone’s life in less than two hours.  If you want some insights about the real artist or you just want to know what made him a significant figure in the music world, then his memory is probably better served by listening to his music alone.

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