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Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (A Movie Review)

SEX & DRUGS & ROCK & ROLL (2010)

Starring Andy Serkis, Olivia Williams, Naomie Harris, Bill Milner, Toby Jones, Tom Hughes, Noel Clarke, Mackenzie Crook, Ray Winstone, Wesley Nelson and Ralph Ineson.

Screenplay by Paul Viragh.

Directed by Mat Whitecross.

Distributed by Entertainment Film Distributors. 115 minutes. Not Rated.

While Ian Dury most certainly lived a fascinating, tragic life, I’m not sure that he is probably ranked high on the list of musicians who are worthy of a biopic.

In fact, unless you are British and of a certain age or a music geek like me, chances are you have barely heard of Dury, if you have at all.

Dury was a long time gigging singer who was crippled due to a childhood bout with polio and became popular in his native country in the late 70s. Dury was an intriguing mix of punk rock, new wave, ska and old-time vaudeville theatrics who caught the wave as part of the hip, edgy Stiff Records label in the late 1970s – one of a stable of stars that included Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Restless Eric, Tracey Ullman and Kirsty MacColl.

So right off the bat, Dury would not be the most obvious movie choice even on his own label. Costello’s music and career was certainly more influential. Lowe shared the storyline of long years scuffling in bar bands before finally breaking through in a short-lived (and more prominent) singles stardom. And though Dury did die way too young, MacColl’s young death was certainly more dramatically tragic. In fact, though the film does acknowledge Dury’s death in the final shot dedication “Ian Dury 1942-2000” they never even touch on the cause, which was a long bout with liver cancer.

And, frankly, all of those singers wrote music which was more accessible to modern ears than Dury’s.

Of course, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll seems much more interested in Dury’s life than his musical career, which is really pretty much glossed over. His signing with legendary pop/punk label Stiff is not dramatized, it’s just mentioned in passing in a conversation that he is having with his son – and it is not even the main point of the statement. In fact, Stiff’s cultural importance and other artists are all pretty much ignored here.

Dury’s short-lived burst of semi-stardom with his band Ian Dury and the Blockheads – in which his debut album New Boots and Panties!! spawned the hits “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” and the song which became this film’s title track – is pretty much covered in a short musical montage where he suddenly goes from unemployed gigging singer to television and concert sensation. One moment we didn’t even know he had a new band; next he was a major pop star. His quick and precipitous tumble back off the pop charts is also pretty much covered in a line of dialogue – suddenly the backlash has set in, and we never see why or how.

Yes, that is how the music biz goes sometimes, but you would expect a film about someone who experienced this would look at what happened and how it changed the hero of the story.

That said, Dury was an interesting, very prickly personality and his very odd existence is brought to life here in a wonderful performance by British character actor Andy Serkis – who was previously best known for lending his voice and visage to the CGI-created character of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Serkis captures this odd contradiction of a man – angry, selfish, mean, oddly charming and wonderfully British. Serkis also does a very impressive job of recording Dury’s music with the original Blockheads.

As said before, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is mostly interested in Dury’s personal life – mostly his childhood and relationships with his estranged wife (Olivia Williams), his adoring but troubled son (Bill Milner) and his long-suffering girlfriend (Naomie Harris). The childhood flashbacks mostly are Dury trying to deal with his handicap, his abandonment by his father (Ray Winstone) and a mean orderly (Toby Jones) at the hospital Dury was abandoned at.

In fact, one of the best scenes in the film has Dury returning to the hospital as a successful grown man and talking with young, disabled children who now see him as a role model.

It is a rare moment of selflessness for Dury, who apparently was kind of a wanker, though he was just as hard on himself as he was on those around him. All three of the vices in the title are on ample display here as Dury seemed to like to numb himself in any way possible.

Unexpectedly, though, for such an oddball character, Dury’s biopic touches on surprisingly many of the rock & roll biopic touchstones – substance abuse, selfishness, buying into his own press, mistreating of the women in his life and the eventual crash and burn.

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll tells a somewhat familiar story – but like its main character, it tells it in an eccentric and inimitably charming way.

Ken Sharp

Copyright ©2010 All rights reserved. Posted: May 30, 2010.

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