Alison Wilde reviews Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll - a biopic about the life of the disabled rock star Ian Dury / 26 January 2010
Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll went on general release on 8 January, 2010. It was directed by Mat Whitecross and written by Paul Viragh. It stars Andy Serkis, Bill Milner, Olivia Williams, Naomie Harris and Ray Winstone.
I fell in love with Ian Dury and the Blockheads the minute I heard ‘Hit me with your rhythm stick.’ I still think ‘Wake Up’ is one of the best love songs I ever heard. Buying New Boots and Panties in 1977, I began to listen intently to the lyrics, was easily seduced by the wit and vulgarity, and was gripped by tales of southern characters such as ‘Clever Trevor’.
Being a girl firmly rooted in Yorkshire, the colourful images Ian Dury painted of people in places such as Billericay sounded very exotic, making me yearn to explore the South East of England. When I did, the vivid portrayal of Patricia put me off Plaistow and, to be honest, Billericay didn’t quite live up to the lyrics.
But thankfully I was in London to watch Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll on the day it was released. With apologies to suitably talented disabled male actors that were overlooked in the casting of Andy Serkis as Ian Dury, this film and Serkis’ performance surpassed my expectations. I can’t imagine a better performance.
Although I was aware that Serkis’ left arm was ‘wrong’ occasionally (when it was seen), slightly breaking the thread of belief, his performances with the Blockheads were entertaining, sometimes moving and woven tightly into the story of his life. At times I forgot that it was Serkis’ voice rather than Dury’s. His physical resemblance helped in the suspension of disbelief, though occasional close up shots of his face reminded me of a young Boy George. For once, any physical dissonance didn’t matter to me as a viewer, due to the quality of the story being told.
Dury’s life story was deftly handled, allowing us glimpses of his personality, his personal philosophies, his relationships and his attitudes to disability. Apart from a strange animated segue which informed us (tongue in cheek) of the dangers of polio and how he contracted it, it was disability rather than impairment concerns which predominated.
Disability issues were addressed in a direct and entertaining manner. Handled sensitively, seen primarily from his character’s viewpoint, the narrative took us into a number of areas which seem to be taboo in mainstream cinema. There were portrayals of incontinence and the consequent social humiliation, for example.
Subtly, but assertively, incidents such as this were tied into the abusive conditions Dury was subjected to as a child. Pivotal moments of bullying in a residential institution were revealed in flashback and related to his anger and outspoken attitudes to disability in his adult life, (scenes which included a number of disabled child actors).
Thankfully these vignettes were not used to make excuses for later excesses but helped to illustrate the wider canvas of his life, so often missing in biopics. The treatment he received in the ‘care’ of residential schoolmaster Hargreaves (Toby Jones) gave the audience an especially valuable flavour of the way disabled people have suffered abuse in institutions and how this may have fed into Dury’s ambitions, without distracting us from his talents as an entertainer.
Although we were encouraged to believe that early experiences of bullying had made him both angry and determined to succeed, this was not overdone and I left the cinema feeling as I had when I went in - that he was a talented and hugely entertaining performer, with a wonderfully idiosyncratic style and sharp political edge. Nonetheless, the firm focus put upon Dury’s musical career gave us little indication of his other creative talents, of his work in art, acting and teaching, nor of his second wife and their children.
The story told in the film focuses on four main areas of his adult life: his music and relationships with the band, his relationships with women, his relationship with his father and with his son. This added to a more nuanced portrayal of his personality allowing us a multidimensional (if fictionalised) understanding of most parts of his life.
Personally, I would have enjoyed seeing more of his relationships with the band, especially Chas Jankel. I was pleased to see that parenting played such a major role in the film but dismayed to find that it focussed almost exclusively on his son, Baxter, with few appearances of his daughter, Jemima. Whilst this may echo the reality of family relationships, the reasons were never made clear and I found myself wanting to know more about his relationships with his other children.
I do have some bias here, because I disliked the casting of his son Baxter, played by Bill Milner. Although I enjoyed Milner’s performance as Will in Son of Rambow (2007), he was miscast as Edward in ‘Is anybody there?’ (2008).
Edward is the son of a Northern couple who run a care home, befriending a new resident who is a retired magician (Michael Caine). This was a casting decision which ruined ‘Is anybody there?’ for me. His personality was one-dimensional and his efforts to ‘pass’ as a Northern, working-class lad were unconvincing.
Although Milner’s social background is probably nearer to that of the Dury family, there seemed to be no difference whatsoever between the portrayals of Edward and Baxter. At times I felt that he was living a double life; the one we could see on screen with Ian Dury, and another back at the care home.
Thankfully, there is little dissonance between Serkis’ performance and my initial preconceptions of Dury. Despite the minor technical flaws, I found the portrayal of his sexuality and relationships with women succeeded in reflecting a multi-dimensional picture of Dury’s character. Occasionally sleazy and insensitive, and often charming, we get impressions of many aspects of his personality, illuminating both his virtues and his shortcomings.
It became easy to see how he provoked both enormous affection and considerable hostility from both the women who were featured in the film, his first wife Betty and girlfriend Denise. Indeed, Dury came across as loud, gregarious and confident in this characterisation, the life and soul of the party, but I remain curious about any other sides to his personality.
As a teenager going out with my friends, I once met him and the Blockheads. We were invited backstage after a show and he seemed subdued. So I got the impression that his stage persona was quite different to his personal demeanour. Not that a man sitting quietly in a corner, with little to say would have made a very good film! Maybe he was depressed at being in Bradford - I know I was.
It is difficult to know how ‘true’ this impression of Ian Dury’s life is to ‘reality’ but it succeeded in communicating the importance of his contribution to music, entertainment and lyric writing in particular. Within the limitations of a biopic, the film also excels at presenting disability issues; it is direct and often subtle in its approach.
Whether or not Dury identified with Gene Vincent as a disabled musician, the (restrained) homage made to him and his influence on Dury is made very clear, demonstrating the power of disabled artists, the importance of collective histories and the legacies bequeathed to us all.