Reviewed at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival
From its trippy, Python-style opening credits, Mat Whitecross's sex & drugs & rock & roll charges onto the screen like a runaway train, filling the screen with loud music and trick angles and zippy filmmaking, hoping to distract us from noticing that it's yet another "rock star behaving badly" biopic. It very nearly succeeds, giving us a rise to fame that pulls us in with such gusto that we all but forget the second act fall that the structure dictates. Whitecross (and writer Paul Viragh) know that we've seen this story before, but at least they toss some glitter at us along the way.
It is the story of Ian Dury (played by Andy Serkis), frontman of the seminal British punk/New Wave group Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Dury wasleft disabled by a childhood bout with polio, and somewhat psychologically scarred by his time at a school and hospital for disabled children (in flashbacks, a perfectly vile Toby Jones is his main adversary there). Ray Winstone pops up as his dad, who advises him, "Being the underdog with nothing to lose is a nice place to start." Ian charges forward with that notion, living his life with reckless abandon--he headily pursues his off-beat punk/pop career (in spite of the indifference of club audiences), partaking of drink and women, fluttering in and out of the country home he shares with his wife (Olivia Williams) and children while keeping an apartment with his young girlfriend (Naomie Harris).
The first half or so of sex & drugs & rock & roll has a cheerfully anarchic spirit, but with a sadness brewing right underneath. Director Whitecross orchestrates the picture's tempo changes like a good rock album--it hits furious peaks, slows for the introspective ballads, veers off for a bit of comic vaudeville business. It's all done in a snappy multimedia mosaic, complimenting the straight biography material with a kind of life-in-review concert framework (similar to the recent Bronson), and it's fun to watch--the concert scenes pulse with the vibrancy of a great performance movie like The Last Waltz or Monterey Pop, all hurdy-gurdy camerawork and punchy zooms and smash cuts. There are drawbacks to the film's fast, free-for-all style, though; the Blockheads' rise to fame, for example, is done in a lickety-split montage, and while it's got a giddy kick, its brevity means that we never get a sense of how they developed their style or found an audience that wanted to connect with them. There's no time for explanations--it's all go-go-go adrenaline, which is pleasurable but has its limits.
For all the high style that Whitecross employs to tell the tale, he can't avoid the trap of all rock star biopics. They all hit roughly the same beats in about the same fashion, because rock stars learn so depressingly little from their contemporaries, and Dury screws up in all the same ways, indulging in all the anticipated excesses (what do you expect, they're right there in the title). But even when the story is going through its paces, Serkis is giving it his all. He is electrifying--ranting, raving, joking, and hurting ("I'm a bit in need of saving," he tells Harris after a rough patch. "Where have you been?"). Williams, as the tolerant sometimes-wife, has perhaps the trickiest role; when she proposes a divorce, he immediately replies, "It's far too logical." Williams knows the only way to play a character like this is as honestly as she can, and she gives the film a grounded center amidst all the insanity. Harris does the best she can with her tired character; she comes on like gangbusters, but by the end, she's saddled with lines like "I don't know who you are anymore." Blergh.
The film spans about three decades, coming to a conclusion that seems to stop a little short (we don't get much of a sense of his last two decades). But they make the smart play by saving "Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3" for the end credits, closing the show on a pitch-perfect note. sex & drugs & rock & roll may tell a familiar tale, but it does it with enough energy and pizzazz to spackle over at least some of the familiarity.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.