Beneath all the razzle-dazzle, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is a conventional tale.
Limping onto the stage of his own imagination, Ian Dury – artist, singer and punk poet of the working classes – emerges as something both heroic and apologetic in Mat Whitecross’ lary solo debut.
As embodied by Andy Serkis, Dury is an original musical hooligan – the kind of man who’d rather practice with his band than witness the birth of his son. Emerging out of the art school scene of the late '60s, he developed a distinctive brand of urban lyricism, which Serkis delivers with lusty North London bluster.
The vehicle for this punk poetry is The Blockheads, whose success lifted Dury from the squalid pub circuit to the top of the charts. But as his career accelerates, Dury suffers a kind of existential whiplash, struggling to balance the demands of family, mistress and music.
The result of this emotional equivocation is the slow-motion implosion of his son, Baxter (played by Son of Rambow’s Bill Milner). Surrounded by temptation and denied any example beyond his father’s libertine impulses, it’s not long before the youngster has grown his hair, downed some pills and started throwing furniture out of school windows.
This disintegrating relationship illuminates the lingering sense of loss and betrayal that Dury feels towards his own father, played in flashback by Ray Winstone. His father’s death left Dury, who had been crippled by polio at the age of seven, abandoned to a sadistic nurse in a hospital for disabled children, where the first seeds of rebellion took root.
All of which is ground covered in a film that explodes into life from the minute pop-art guru Peter Blake’s opening credits crowd the screen. Combined with Peter Christelis’ skittish editing and Mat Whitecross’ dynamic work behind the camera, it all adds up to a film that works very hard to distinguish itself from other run-of-the-mill rock biopics.
This is, at heart, a story about a frustrated family man, wary of but helpless before the pitfalls of fame. Andy Serkis, here divested of the CG baubles that have accompanied his best known work as Gollum and King Kong, kills it in the lead role, capturing the fine blend of joy and anger that defined Dury’s ‘polluted genius’.
He’s especially strong in the scenes in which Dury stands up to the patronising attitude of the Spastics Society (as it was then), delivering the anarchic broadside of ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ with defiant energy.
But there’s still something structurally familiar about the film. This is a classic three-act tale, with personal obstacles bested and lessons dutifully learned. For all that it’s enlivened by some strong performances and a convincing emotional core, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is a family melodrama in rock ‘n’ roll trousers. But man, it knows how to wear them.
Depends whether you’re a fan of Ian Dury, doesn’t it?
Serkis is mesmerising and Whitecross has got an eye for style.
Beneath the razzle-dazzle is a conventional tale.