Thursday, 11 February 2010

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (2010)

* * * *

(Dir. Mat Whitecross, 2010)

Neatly titled and not just because of the hit song,
Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll trades in the fashionably mellow and mythologising rock-Romantic biopic for a joyous ode with outrageous stamina, boasting a jolly soldier of an icon. Andy Serkis (Lord of the Rings, Longford) is unsurprisingly faultless as witty, hedonistic punk pioneer and polio-victim, Ian Dury (1942-2000). He juggles two separate lives as family man, and avant garde front man, oscillating between two lovers (including his wife) who are warmly but confusingly friendly to one another. Dury has a daughter, barely written into the film, and a son, Baxter (the talented Bill Milner), who is led astray by junkie-groupie, Ralph Ineson. At this point it is worth briefly mentioning two amusing cameos by Ineson and Mackenzie Crook, instantly recognisable as Finchy and Gareth from Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's, The Office. Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is concerned with Dury's implicit struggle with polio, the damaging narrative of his childhood and his unstable family life. And virtue demands that we pity, admire, repudiate and even loathe his sometimes benign, sometimes destructive, behaviour. But despite the death of his father (another impressive cameo, Ray Winstone), and a maturity of determination to support his family as well as a charity for the disabled, little happens in a gossamer plot.

I don't buy into Peter Bradshaw's description of Dury as "the missing link between Oscar Wilde and Morrissey". Although his lyrics are powdered with wit and literary sensibility, Dury was the enigmatic, crude and Cockney antithesis of Manchester's miserable aesthete, and the testosterone-pumped, alpha-male contrary to Wilde. However Dury's anthems for the wandering outsider, roared with uncanny accuracy by Serkis, are painstakingly Romantic and certainly anticipate the work of a number of alternative darlings in popular music. A more important proleptic reality can be found in the film's spurious and simple spiritual message. Purposefully out of sync with every other scene, Dury visits his old school for disabled children, and when asked whether or not he believes in "The Almighty God", he answers: "I believe in good" - a lawless faith, easily identifiable for the largely secular youth of twenty-first century Britain.

The art, or rather common sense, to a cult-icon biopic is to make the hero seem (even) more fascinating than he or she actually was, or is, in reality. So Dury is always mysterious; he is passive when the emotional dialogue is at its most visceral, subject to tears and fists and plate-throwing. At his angriest he cracks an egg in his producer's face, and then turns on himself with another egg in a farcical studio brawl. Dury's fascination with water ("covers seventy percent of the world") and rhythm ("the longest word in the dictionary without any vowels") belittles his lust for stardom and bestows the movie its pain. Dury was a talented swimmer and contracted his crippling, incurable disease whilst swimming as a boy. The image of the leg brace in cinema is best known for its sentimental role in
Forrest Gump. In contrast, and for this film's hero, disability is permanent. The brace is a constant reminder of how Dury's suffering is bound to childhood in an untypical erosion of innocence. Through the versatility of director and writer, this is skilfully sculpted into comedy in several incidences when our creepy clown has lost, or made fun of, the apparatus he can not function without.

No John Lennon epiphany or Ian Curtis apotheosis awaits Dury; Serkis sweats in every minute of this film, a self-deprecating "raspberry ripple" (cockney rhyming slang for cripple), a self-aggrandising "entertainer". We are spared Dury's agony: his death by cancer in 2000 is wisely boycotted by brilliant script-writer, Paul Viragh. Still, the physical defence mechanism provided by Dury's black sunglasses - his sense of cool is the simultaneously impenetrable and penetrating - becomes increasingly ubiquitous as the film draws to its timely close. Here then, there is no traumatic plummet, only a portion of the inevitable chill & comedown & fading music of
Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. In the same way that Corbijn's sublime Control inspired a revival for Joy Division, so too could this film, posthumously, for another seminal voice of the seventies.

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