That’s one helluva title to live up to, but director Mat Whitecross does so with gut-busting liver-breaking lung-smashing chutzpah in this warts-n-all, pills-n-booze biopic of singer and lyricist Ian Dury, who rose to fame as a petulant Punk icon in the late 70s.
Dury is brought to life with a balls-grabbing high voltage performance from Andy Serkis, the British actor who has carved an odd niche as the most widely seen invisible presence in modern cinema history. Serkis is most famous for disappearing under skins of digital rendering and emerging – hissing, growling, beating his chest – as blockbuster movie characters such as Gollum and King Kong.
But if you suspected Serkis needed CGI implants to get his performances across you line you were way wrong. His incarnation of Dury is a stunning amalgamation of emotions; it’s rock and roll masochism underscored by tragedy, the kind of one man powerhouse movie buffs spend endless hours wading through forgettable films to find.
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Beneath the beer stains and cigarette burns lies a tender, finely nuanced performance mingled with the streak stained underwear. Dury is a showman, a character of deep internal conflicts with a sensitive soul that lingers at the eye of the hurricane, though no-one in the path of such force of nature is likely to sense the quiet soul at the core of the chaos and tumult.
Serkis fearlessly conveys all this and then some. You can’t take your eyes off him and it is no exaggeration to say this feisty performer’s starring turn in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll ranks as one of the best performances of this or any year. It deserves to be remembered – not that audiences will have a choice – as the kind of performance that produces one of those rare, unforgettable characters, etched like knife wounds into the psyche. You’ll remember that awkward hobble (his character has polio), those bleary wild eyes, that bull-headed fickle spirit.
At its core Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is about the relationship between father and son. The music, the panache, the rock and roll provides the druggy dressing. Stricken by polio at a young age, slivers of Dury’s past provides hints of the sources of his troubled and turbulent adult life. He maintains a vague emotional dependence on his first wife Betty (Olivia Williams) who is caring but cautious, and interacts as an often less than ideal father to his son Baxter (a terrific turn from the young Bill Milner). Dury’s relationship with members of his band, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, also occupies a substantial part of the narrative. And it ain’t always beer and skittles.
If you want a dramatically balanced film with a clear and concise message, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll isn’t for you – you’ll feel like the equivalent of the person hovering alone in the corner at a party, fidgeting with your phone and waiting for home time, or the pensioner upstairs yelling out to keep the noise down. The interpersonal relationships are deeply and powerfully conveyed, the drama rich and nuanced, but it’s the film’s energy that carries it snorting and sweating across the finishing line. Whitecross’s direction frequently cuts into music video mode to integrate Dury’s songs into the film. These scenes ooze style and colour, sprinkled with sassy edits and flashy backdrops: cool, bold, visionary.
Biopics are always tricky to get right. It’s tough to tread a responsible line between fact and fiction and nail the rhythms required for interesting storytelling. On top of that lies a challenge only the more talented biopic-makers can master: to somehow encapsulate not just the truthfulness of events and relationships but the truthfulness of character, the reason for being, raison de’tre, in this case celebrating the spirit of a talented performer without spilling into idolatry or fandom.
Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll does these things magnificently. It is a film of bad craziness, savage beauty and startling pathos. It’s also one of the year’s must-see releases.