Ian Dury was the unlikeliest of rock stars in an age of unlikely rock stars. The punk icon had a severe case of polio when a child, leaving the left side of his body somewhat worse for wear. Like many a lad of the 1960s, he found salvation in rock music, emulating the style of Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. After a few false starts, he formed the Blockheads and found success with music that combined punk anarchy with traditional British music hall. By the time Dury became famous in the late 1970s, however, he was already approaching 40 and had a wife and two kids. Not exactly Hammer of the Gods-type material.
Then again, the movie of Dury's life is called Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll for a reason, and not just because it was the name of one of his biggest hits. There are plenty of each in the movie, and director Mat Whitecross (The Shock Doctrine) and writer Paul Viragh seem most curious how those things fit into the life of a man who has a family to support. A good portion of the movie is devoted to Ian's relationship with his son, perhaps even more than is devoted to the music--which is arguably a mistake.
Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is somewhat of a standard music biopic, and like most music biopics, rests entirely on the shoulders of the actor playing the lead. In this case, it is Andy Serkis, probably best known as the man who played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies. Ian Dury has some of the same obsessive habits as Gollum, with fame being his "precious." The entertainer isn't much of a husband, and early in the movie, he moves out on his wife (Olivia Williams) and moves in with a 19-year-old groupie (Naomie Harris). He starts writing music with a new guitarist, Chaz Jankel (Tom Hughes), and after too many missed birthdays and other failures with fatherly duties, takes in his son Baxter (Bill Milner), allowing the boy to see the rock lifestyle up close. Dury has daddy issues himself, and we see flashbacks to his father (44 Inch Chest's Ray Winstone in a very small role) abandoning him to a hospital for disabled children, leaving young Ian (Wesley Nelson) in the hands of a frustrated orderly (Infamous's Toby Jones, also in a tiny role). This is a biopic, don't forget, so this young pain will lead to future pain--and also songs.
The relationship between Baxter and Ian allows Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll some opportunities that other rock pictures don't get. Normally, the kids are left at home when the music takes off, but Baxter is right there, and that does lend some gravitas to Ian wrestling with the memories of his troubled childhood. The downside is that these opportunities come at the expense of what is essential for a good rock biography--we lose out on a lot of the music. The film opens well, starting with Ian on stage and some animated titles by pop artist Peter Blake (the guy who did the Sgt. Peppers album cover). For a bit of the film, Whitecross stages Dury's story as a combination stage show and traditional narrative film. We see Ian burning through his first band, alienating his wife, and then starting on the path that will lead to his brief success. Whitecross gives us a small glimpse at how some of the songs come together, but jumps from that early backroom tinkering to the sudden explosion of fame with no in between. We barely knew he had a record deal.
Then, just as quickly as the good days came, they end, and Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll shifts into its dark final act. Drugs, egomania, and car accidents follow, and then the movie is rounded out by a small renewal of artistic powers and even finding a little peace. (Dury died in 2000, but the movie's version of his story is done long before that.) I think a lot of people in North America are going to hear about this movie and wonder who the hell Ian Dury was, and though Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll should give them a pretty good idea, the film will still leave many in the dark about how big Dury really was and the ways in which his music mattered. Serkis is extremely charismatic on stage and off, and he finds that inner spark that makes a truly individual character like Ian Dury a star, but the movie lets him down by compartmentalizing and compressing the world the Blockheads once ruled.
Video, Audio, Extras:
DVD Talk was only sent a screening copy of Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, without final video and audio presentation or special features. Should we receive a final product, this review will be adjusted accordingly.
This early review copy was likely sent to help promote the movie's current "video on demand" status at Amazon: click on the poster image above.
Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll ends up being a decent musical drama that sags under its own good intentions. While the film's narrative arc intends to look behind the curtain and show us that Ian Dury was more than a clown, the script ends up crumbling under its own negativity. Andy Serkis gives a dynamite performance as this singular performer, and his charisma and the fun of the music allows Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll to maintain interest all the away to the end, but the movie doesn't quite have the soul it aspires to. Rent It.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.