Ah, the biopic: it's where the avant-garde, underground, and eccentric go to become comfortably mainstream. Although I, a musical moron, knew nothing in particular about Ian Dury, the British punk rock pioneer played by Andy Serkis in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, there's rarely a minute in the film where I could not tell what was going to happen next. Although Serkis gives his all to the role, and some doses of the film's laborious style work better than others, on the whole, the film is a tired, overzealous attempt to document a man who should bring all the personality the film requires.
Partially hobbled by a childhood bout with polio, Dury is immediately painted as a man overwhelmed with mood swings, inspiration, energy and passion. Right from the start, he's shown as stuck between estranged band members (including Mackenzie Crook) and an estranged wife (Olivia Williams) and son (Bill Milner), unable to remain focused on either thanks to his naturally manic personality. The film interweaves past and present, showing both flashbacks to Dury's childhood memories of his father (Ray Winstone) and his new relationship with a sexy 19-year-old named Denise (Naomie Harris). All of these are intercut with fantasy scenes of Dury in death-white makeup, on a stage in some imaginary, run-down playhouse.
Although the film calms down somewhat after a certain point, the first 20 or so minutes showcase director Mat Whitecross at his most indulgent, slathering Dury's retelling in all sorts of mixed-media nonsense including animation and old newsreels. It's not the first film I've seen about an outsized personality that refused to take a naturalistic view of its subject, but almost every time, a loud protagonist and a loud cinematic style just end up canceling each other out. The film becomes a wall of noise, with no center to hone in on. Later bits, like an almost heavenly white hallway and a fantasy involving an underwater gig, feel like more effective attempts to feed off the movie's vibes, but too much of the movie exemplifies style over substance.
Whenever the chaos subsides, Serkis proves as adept at handling the film's more understated moments as he is the big ones. Whether he's forming a surprising bond with a group of kids at his former school or bellowing at an authority figure ("I'm not here to be remembered, I'm here to be alive!"), Serkis is the defining reason to keep watching, forming genuine bonds with co-stars Williams, Milner, and Harris (all of whom give solid supporting turns of their own). Yet even this half of the film is bogged down with a tiresome need to explain away some of Dury's eccentricities with father abandonment nightmares, culminating in a scene where a young Dury shits his bed and a roomful of disabled schoolchildren taunt him ("Shitter!"). Even if this is a true story from Dury's life, it seems like armchair psychology. If the film was desperate to examine a younger Dury, the potential parallels between Dury's father and his own parenting skills are well formed through the acting and less cheaply analytical.
Some people deserve to have their stories told. Ian Dury may be one of those people. But like most unique individuals, painting a picture of the man is a challenge, and painting one that attempts to explain said figure is almost destined to fail. Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is yet another in a long line of indistinguishable projects: not terrible, but deeply, problematically uninspired. Funny that so many biopics and true story adaptations of figures like Dury come out feeling so painfully similar; perhaps next time a young up-and-coming filmmaker wants to honor a wild and crazy rock-and-roll icon, they should make a biopic about their worst enemy instead.
The clean but overly simple artwork, which just throws Serkis, Milner, and the title treatment onto a white background with a lazy fake shadow, falls somewhere between stylish and lazy. The same art is printed on both a cardboard slipcover and actual case artwork, with an American Express/Tribeca Film Festival DVD insert inside the Viva ECO case.
The Video and Audio
No problems with detail and color in this anamorphic widescreen presentation (looks to be 1.78:1), but director Mat Whitecross is fond of dark theaters and a somewhat grainy look, neither of which come through as well as they should on the disc. Mosquito noise and artifacts are a constant problem. Those with smaller displays probably won't find the problem too nagging, but if you're watching on a larger set or HDTV it's an ever-present issue.
Dolby Digital 5.1 feels a touch muted, but there's a solid spread amongst the five speakers in the film's numerous musical numbers, bizarre fantasy sequences and noisy, dingy bars. No subtitles are provided on the disc itself, but English closed captioning is available if the TV set being used is capable of displaying them.
Under the Setup menu, there is an audio commentary by director Mat Whitecross, Andy Serkis and writer Paul Viragh. Recorded at Tribeca, the trio's comments often feel somewhat promotional, like lingering bits of the PR machine, but the trio has fairly interesting comments about the trials and tribulations of the making of the film, including numerous problems during shooting. Predictably, Whitecross and Viragh are both wholly in love with the film's manic style, repeatedly dismissing a standard biopic as "boring". Sigh...
Three video extras are included. "My Tribeca Story" (2:21) is a short talk with Mat Whitecross about the experience of making the film, while "An Interview With the Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll Team" (3:02) assembles Whitecross, Serkis, and Viragh to talk about the film itself. Both are fine, but promotional in nature. Two (or four, depending on how you look at it) deleted scenes (8:02) finish out the disc (I liked the second one, if you go by menu selection).
Trailers for My Last Five Girlfriends, The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, and Metropia play before the main menu, during which short time the viewer will become very tired of Tribeca's logo music. NO theatrical trailer for Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll have been included.
There are enough good performances in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll to merit a rental, especially if the viewer is either a fan of Dury, Serkis, or one of the film's major supporting cast members. It's just too bad the same amount of effort couldn't have gone into producing a book or documentary about the same man instead of another mediocre, forgettable entry in the increasingly tired biopic genre.
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