No one could accuse “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” of false advertising. This biopic of ’70s Brit rocker Ian Dury offers up lashings of shagging, substance abuse and singing, but Paul Viragh’s script is too bitty to hold it all together, and filigrees of technique fail to disguise the weaknesses in helmer Mat Whitecross’ first solo flight. It will take a lot of coin from local distrib Entertainment to make the pic’s wide release in Blighty pay off, especially given Dury’s lack of name recognition among the under-40s.
More admired than actually listened to today, even by aficionados of late-’70s Brit rock, Essex-born Dury (1942-2000) was a charismatic performer and gifted lyricist whose polio-stricken body and limitations as a singer didn’t stop him from having several hit singles such as “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” and “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.” His often smutty lyrics — “Had a love affair with Nina/In the back of my Cortina/A seasoned-up hyena/ Could not have been more obscener” — defined the very English notion of “cheeky.”
Dury’s defiant, punk-rock flaunting of his physical disability, and contempt for anyone who dared pity him, endeared him to many. His response to a request to write a song for the U.N.’s Year of the Disabled in 1981 was the savage rant “Spasticus Autisticus” — an episode covered in the film.
Whitecross (who co-directed “The Road to Guantanamo” and “The Shock Doctrine” with Michael Winterbottom), Viragh and, most of all, lead thesp Andy Serkis (Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) succeed in conveying Dury’s sharp wit, his ineffable Englishness and especially his musical skills via rousing perfs of many key songs. Serkis does an excellent job of replicating Dury’s unlovely Cockney croak on the soundtrack, and with his body sculpted by weight training to replicate Dury’s asymmetrical frame, the thesp also nails his physical presence. It’s unfortunate, then, that Whitecross wasn’t able to keep Serkis from mugging shamelessly.
The film’s bigger problem is that its subject has too many warts to make this palatable viewing for anyone but hardcore fans. Covering mainly the period just before Dury made it big, the height of his career and his gradual retirement from the music scene, the pic doesn’t flinch from showing how selfish Dury could be and how irresponsible a parent he was, especially to his son, Baxter (beautifully played by Bill Milner from “Son of Rambow”). Most of all, it shows how poorly he treated two of the women in his life: first wife Betty (Olivia Williams, saddled with another nasty period haircut after “An Education”) and g.f. Denise (Naomie Harris).
Flashbacks to Dury’s tough years as a child (Wesley Nelson) living in hospitals, with only occasional visits from his dad (Ray Winstone) for comfort, heavy-handedly try to drum up some sympathy.
Animated sequences and surrealistic touches jazz things up and add period flavor, but the pic’s nearly two-hour running time still drags. Editing credited to Peter Christellis (Whitecross has worked as an editor himself) relentlessly crosscuts in an attempt to create narrative texture but just ends up feeling wearisome and confusing. Winterbottom’s “24 Hour Party People,” which covered roughly the same period with a loose narrative frame, had far more ideas.
A stage-set framing device with intense lighting recalls Nicolas Winding Refn’s recent “Bronson,” but without its show-stopping setpieces.
When Dury says, “The moral of this story is, don’t go looking for morals to stories, and if you want a message, fuck off down the post office,” it feels like a preemptive strike against those expecting a redemption-filled biopic along the lines of “Walk the Line” or “Ray.” A message isn’t necessarily expected, but some sort of point would be nice.