Judge Clark Douglas appreciates it when films deliver what the title promises.
The wild rock-and-roll journey of the legendary Ian Dury.
Most American readers probably aren't familiar with Ian Dury. I certainly wasn't very familiar with him before seeing this film, as I only knew one of his songs (that would be the oddly infectious "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick"), though one of my British friends had once informed me that Dury was a very well-known figure on the other side of the pond. After watching Mat Whitecross' Dury biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, I feel like I have a much better idea of who Dury was as a person, what drove him and what his life was like. However, I'm not sure that I know much more about him as a musician or why he is regarded as a significant figure in British rock. As such, the film seems to be primarily geared towards those who already know what they need to know about Dury's career and would be interested in seeing a drama about his personal life.
Dury (Andy Serkis, King Kong) was born in London in 1942 and developed polio as a young child. His father (Ray Winstone, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) was a good-hearted but stern man who believed that his son should learn to overcome his problems on his own. When Ian fell down, he had to pick himself up. During his pre-adolescent years, Ian was sent to a school run by a similarly strict figure (Toby Jones, The Painted Veil). Ian did indeed learn self-reliance during this time, but the oppressive nature of the school cultivated a strong anti-authoritarian streak within him.
Moments from Dury's youth are peppered throughout the film in flashbacks, as the bulk of the movie focuses on the adult Dury's struggles to juggle his assorted relationships. At any given moment, someone is upset with Ian about something, whether it's his estranged wife (Olivia Williams, The Ghost Writer), his young mistress (Naomie Harris, 28 Days Later), his son Baxter (Bill Milner, Is Anybody There?) or his bandmates Russell (Mackenzie Crook, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl), Chaz (Tom Hughes, Cemetery Junction), Mick (Arthur Darvill, Robin Hood) and Charley (Clifford Samuel, Shoot on Sight). As Dury's professional career builds, his personal life continues to deteriorate.
The problem with making a film about Ian Dury is that his story is oh-so-similar to the stories told in so many other music biopics. He had some childhood tragedy that lingered over his entire life, he found some remarkable success early on, he got caught up in drugs and relationship problems, he languished for a while in a creative and personal wasteland and then he made something of a rebound. Life has a way of being so clichéd at times, doesn't it? The filmmakers seem to realize that simply offering a straightforward version of this story might accentuate its tedious nature, so they work up some non-linear spitballs to throw at us in the first act. Buzzing with energy and visual flair, the first act jumps frantically between the past and the present, sometimes meshing the two together in moments of inspired feverishness. All of this is underscored by Dury's manic music (impressively performed by Serkis), and for a while Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll works like gangbusters.
Alas, the pace drops as the film proceeds and the filmmakers eventually start spending most of their time exploring the relationship between Ian and Baxter. While there are admittedly some nice moments here, it's certainly not one of the film's more compelling elements. I wanted to know more about the stir Dury caused with his controversial song "Spasticus Autisticus" (an angry response to Britain's patronizing "Year of the Disabled" PR campaign) or about the way the arrival of punk shaped Dury's image or about the influence he had on other musicians of the era. Alas, most of that stuff simmers in the background. For the most part, the closest we get to an exploration of Dury's career are the occasional performances of his more noteworthy songs.
If there's a reason for those who aren't terribly familiar with Dury to see the film, it's the astonishing performance of Andy Serkis. The actor is best-known for the motion-capture/voice work he did as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings franchise, and Mr. Dury is perhaps an even more animated character. Sporting a wardrobe that falls halfway between "demented clown" and A Clockwork Orange and adopting a guttural growl that drips with lust, Serkis perfectly captures Dury's blend of wicked charm and monstrous ego. His performance was deservedly nominated for all kinds of awards in Britain (you know, where people care about Dury and actually watched the film), but it will most likely go unnoticed in America given the hit-and-miss nature of the film and the relative obscurity of its subject.
You may have noticed that I listed a lot of talented supporting players a few paragraphs back. I should note that while the film does indeed have a superb supporting cast, almost all of the big names are wasted in poorly-developed roles. They all do what they can, but they don't have enough screen time to make a big impact on the movie (as far as I'm concerned, there are few greater crimes than wasting people like Ray Winstone and Olivia Williams). The only member of the supporting cast that makes much of an impression is young Bill Milner, but that's only because he's around far more than the others.
The DVD transfer is adequate, offering acceptable detail and depth. I wish it had been a little sharper at times, but it's nothing to complain about. The soundtrack is solid too, with the musical sequences standing out as a highlight (the disc is also a little quieter than I expected; I had to turn my speakers up a bit higher than usual). Extras a commentary with the filmmakers, two throwaway featurettes ("My Tribeca Story with Director Mat Whitecross" and "An Interview with the Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll Team") and some deleted scenes.
If you're a fan of Ian Dury or if you simply want to see a knockout lead performance from Andy Serkis, the film is worth a look. Unfortunately, the average viewer will probably find themselves underwhelmed and unenlightened by what Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll has to offer.
Serkis is free to go, but the film itself is given a slap on the wrist.
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