Saturday, 19 November 2011

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (2010)

Not enough British films on here so how about we stay on the rock'n'roll tip with this homegrown gas from last year? Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is the biopic of Ian Dury, that mercurial singer, songwriter and entertainer from the capital. The film charts Dury's rise from his pub and punk rock roots in North London to chart topping stardom in the late 70s/early 80s when he reached the dizzy heights as the face of the British New Wave music scene.

Dury belongs to that long tradition of British drug fueled and psychedelically inspired poets, artists and musicians, going back to The Romantics and taking in Syd Barrett, The Beatles, Julian Cope and pop artist Peter Blake. In fact Blake taught Dury at art school and also designed the album cover to the Dury tribute album Brand New Boots and Panties which was released after the singer's death. And there's a lot in the movie that could have been designed by Blake himself. The vivid opening credits and other animated scenes mirror Dury's colourful and violent lifestyle and look straight out of the artist's hand.

Central to the enjoyment of the film is a spellbinding performance from Andy Serkis as Ian Dury. Serkis has for so long been the "undisputed king of mo-cap acting" (© Den of Geek) with stand-out animated roles in Lord of The Rings, King Kong and most recently Rise of The Planet of The Apes and Tintin. Here he gets the chance to show off his acting skills and he grabs it with both hands. Serkis plays Dury as the classic rock star - cruel, angry, selfish, foul mouthed... yet still immensely talented and inspirational with no time for fools or compromise. With his dark eyes switching from pools of pathos to menacing daggers in an instant, he totally inhabits what must be a career defining role.

Serkis is ably supported by a fine cast of British actors. Naomi Harris and Olivia Williams play his lover and wife respectively, both with long-suffering dedication. Tom Hughes cuts a modish figure as Dury's writing partner and musical sounding board Chaz Jankel. Ray Winstone and Toby Jones take up opposing roles of good and evil as Dury's father and sadistic school warden Hargreaves. Possibly best of all is child actor Bill Milner who plays Dury's son Baxter, cover star of New Boots and Panties and bewildered drifter through the bohemian milieu that Dury sets up in his North London commune existence.

The background to the story is of course Dury's battle with polio. Diagnosed with the disease as a child, the singer learnt to live with the affliction throughout his adult life, coming to terms with the fact that he was in his own words a "raspberry ripple". However, like Dury himself, the film never steeps itself in pity or asks for our sympathies. Instead it exalts the twin life skills of standing on your own two feet and of rising to prove the world wrong when knocked to the ground.

Much credit for this should go to rookie director Mat Whitecross and script writer Paul Viragh who treat their subject matter with a nice balance of reverence and levity. Whitecross learnt his trade under Brit director Michael Winterbottom, editing the music based love story 9 Songs. Before that he cut his teeth as a pop promo director (albeit for kings of bland Coldplay) so he has previous in capturing the essence of a live music performance. And indeed the movie is expertly shot and cut to showcase Dury's work, with Serkis singing all the songs live, charging energetically from one hair raising theatrical performance to the next.

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll plays out as part rock concert, part music-hall and part Brechtian theatre piece as the singer introduces episodes of his life, holding court on stage as if hosting a one man show in the fringe. I guess if you were to compare it to any other film it would have to be something like Pink Floyd - The Wall, especially in it's non linear structure and the way it mixes childhood memories with music. But whereas The Wall celebrated depression and broken ideals, Sex & Drugs is all about fighting and beating the system. Or in Dury's case, how to avoid death and obsolescence by being magnificent.

Eskimo... Arapaho...