In the United States, Ian Dury is a relatively obscure musical artist best known for his punk rock anthem, “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll,” released in the late 70’s. However, in his homeland of England, Dury and his band, the Blockheads, were extremely successful, scoring a string of hit songs during the punk/new wave era. Andy Serkis is a relatively obscure English actor best known for providing the motion capture movements and the voice of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Redefining what motion capture can achieve, Serkis performance was so nuanced and dramatic that many critics felt he should have been recognized when end of the year awards were handed out. These two artists converge in the new rock bio, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, a fantastic new film that covers Dury’s rise to stardom and the physical disability he had to overcome.
Written by Paul Virach and directed by Mat Whitecross, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is a kindred spirit of Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, using a similar story structure that cuts back and forth from the events that happened in the past and a cabaret style concert by Dury and the Blockheads in which Dury (Serkis) acts as a master of ceremonies to comment on some of the pivotal moments in his life. As the film opens, Dury walks out with the very distinct limp of a man paralyzed in one leg. A lone spotlight shines down on him and he starts the show. Suddenly, the band kicks in with a raucous explosion of music and the film’s stunning opening credits roll. From that moment, we realize that we’re in for a ride, exploring the inspirational, sometimes insane, sometimes sad life of Dury and his family.
Dury contracted polio as a boy and the disease not only left physical scars, it also left deep emotional scars. Flashbacks provide us with selective information about his childhood: his father (Ray Winstone) places him in a home for boys with disabilities, abandoning him at young age. Life in the home was hard and Dury has to suffer the ridicule of his peers and a domineering adult supervisor, wickedly played in the film by Toby Jones. All of these scenes take place while he is dreaming or recalling something horrible, so we’re never quite sure whether Dury had a mother or siblings or how he wound up living in London during the late 60’s and early 70’s. While that information would have been nice, in the end it’s not so important to the narrative of this movie.
As the film progresses, we learn that Dury is married to a lovely woman, Betty (Olivia Williams) and that they have two children, including his son, Bax (Bill Milner). Although Betty and Dury remain married, they do not live together and Dury is allowed to see other women. He falls in love with Denise (Naomie Harris) and they begin living together. It is while living with Denise that Dury begins writing the group of singles that would garner him critical and popular acclaim in the UK. Songs like “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick,” “What A Waste,” and “Reasons to be Cheerful.”
While Dury rises to the top, his young son, Bax, struggles with his identity. Constantly picked on and beat up by his classmates, the young boy begins skipping school. Betty sends Bax to live with Dury and Denise in hope that being around his dad will help him. The father and son develop a strong relationship, with the boy idolizing his dad and Dury doing his best not to be the kind of man his father was. Despite the rampant use of drugs and alcohol that happen around Bax in the bohemian apartment Dury and Denise share, Dury is extremely protective of the boy. One of the nicest aspects of this film is watching the relationship between Dury and Bax grow.
Cutting back and forth between the concert interludes and the scenes of Dury’s life, we get to witness the creation of his two most pivotal songs: “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, and “Spasticus Autisticus.” The latter song, released in 1981, was written in response to that year’s International Year of Disabled Persons. Dury was asked to write a song to help promote the International Year of Disabled Persons, but he found the whole thing patronizing. With brutally honest lyrics and a chorus that goes “I’m spasticus, autisticus” (inspired that famous “I am Spartacus” scene in Spartacus”) the song was banned by the BBC.
Like most music biopics, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll follows the rise to fame and the rock bottom moments in the musician’s life, before his redemption by the end of the movie. Unlike so many rock biopics, this films is visually inventive, a true cinematic joy to watch. I’ve already compared it to Fosse’s masterpiece; I would add to that Todd Hayne’s rock and roll joyride, Velvet Goldmine. Andy Serkis is magnetic on screen, embodying every inch of Dury’s twisted mind and body. It is a spectacular performance that needs to be seen. But he doesn’t overshadow his cast mates. Naomie Harris is wonderful and holds her own against the showier part that Serkis has, while Olivia Williams shows restraint and grace as Betty. Most remarkable is the performance by young actor, Bill Milner. His Bax must undergo so many emotions throughout the chorus of the movie that a lesser actor might buckle from the pressure, adult of young performer. The rapport he develops with Serkis to create the believable relationship of father and son is remarkable.
You don’t have to know much about Ian Dury to appreciate this movie. It is one of the best in its genre and I guarantee that once the movie ends you’ll be humming one or two of Dury’s tunes and searching them out on Amazon soon thereafter.
The film is available streaming through YouTube as a part of a partnership with this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. You can access it here.