The life and times of Brit punk icon Ian Dury are largely captured in the title of this biopic taken from his best-known song. While they were all Dury's brain and body needed, we could have used a little bit more, in what was an enjoyable if incomplete portrait.
Andy Serkis stars as Dury in this film that covers the time roughly from the birth of the rocker’s son, Baxter, to shortly after the release “Spasticus Autisticus,” his musical middle finger to the United Nations’ International Year of the Cripple in 1981. A polio sufferer from childhood, the last thing Dury wanted from anyone, least of all the U.N., was pity.
The film opens with a mish-mash of pseudo-psychedelic animation and Dury serving as MC to the story of his own life in a cabaret setting before a dilapidated and empty theater -- it’s all something of a mess. Once the film settles down into a more cohesive narrative, things work considerably better.
At the core of the film are a pair of recurring themes: father-son relationships in Dury’s life, and the fight for independence, one that dates back to his early battles trying to overcome the debilitating effects of polio. There is no shortage of overlap between the two, and the lessons at times feel obvious, but they were clearly integral to Dury’s maturity as an artist.
Perhaps the film’s largest shortcoming is the way the narrative unspools – it’s as though we skip along the surface of Dury’s life, with no sense of the passage of time. Dury, his wife, girlfriend and bandmates all look essentially the same throughout the decade-plus journey. The only hint of aging is the length of Baxter’s hair as it goes from pageboy to a mullet-Mohawk hybrid.
The film puts Baxter right in the center of the action, a sensible choice given how close he and his father were. As a 4-year-old Baxter appeared on the brilliant cover of his dad’s 1977 album “New Boots and Panties!!!” But strangely there’s no mention at all that Baxter would go on to become a professional musician as well. Though he has never achieved the fame of the old man, Baxter’s 2002 album, “Len Parrot’s Memorial Lift,” is a fine effort that would’ve warranted notice irrespective of the Dury name.
Serkis is great as Dury, with his remarkably expressive face and his sinewy rage. Backed by Dury’s original band The Blockheads, Serkis does a good job of imitating a man who couldn’t, by his own admission, sing terribly well. Unfortunately, it’s not until the film’s closing number, “Reasons to Be Cheerful, Part 3,” that Serkis and The Blockheads really get it together. Many of their earlier performances lack cohesion (an all-too-common pitfall to punk music) and/or energy.
"Sex & drugs & rock & roll" will entertain causal fans and newbies, but no doubt leave hardcore fans frothing with rage. In any event, it's a great story about Dury's triumphs that is held together by Serkis' talents.
"sex & drugs & rock & roll" is playing at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival on April 24, 26, 28 & 29