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June 2010

Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll

cast: Andy Serkis, Naomie Harris, Tom Hughes, Olivia Williams, and Ray Winstone

director: Mat Whitecross

111 minutes (15) 2010
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
EIV DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
review by Andrew Darlington

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

There ain't half been some clever bastards. Ian Dury was something of both. "Don't they teach you any classical history at school these days?" he admonishes son Baxter when he mistakes a print of Gene Vincent for Elvis. Sweet Gene Vincent was a Blockheads' classic. The leather-clad rocker a Dury icon because he, too, was crippled. He'd 'scrambled egg' his leg in a motorcycle accident, an injury aggravated by the auto-wreck that killed fellow rocker Eddie Cochran. He walked with a pronounced limp, performed in constant pain, which he medicated with booze. In every way, a role model for polio-victim Dury.

Dury was a chaotic force of creative anarchy, a rascally infuriating Teddy Boy Bill Sykes by way of the Artful Dodger; the unlikeliest jazz literate star to emerge from the brief blood-spattered punk culture-shock. His marvellous What A Waste speaks for the underclass of what might have been, if things had worked out differently - "I could be a lawyer with stratagems and ruses, I could be a doctor with poultices and bruises, I could be a writer with a growing reputation, I could be the ticket man at Fulham Broadway station." It - with Reasons To Be Cheerful, and several other of his titles, use all the streetwise wit and pop art references of an Adrian Henri poem with a casual rough and tumble lyrical flair. His Billericay Dicky, which opens this homage biopic, is pure carnivalesque music hall, with unruly distant echoes of Max Miller and Stanley Holloway. The screen-colours are brightly lit, the better to illuminate the darkness. Ian Dury was a combative 'selfish loony' high on profanity, poetry, and whatever else came to hand. He asserts "I'm not here to be remembered, I'm here to be alive." Yet he's remembered, in spite of himself, in this impressive recreation of his roaring life.

Andy Serkis, who was Gollum in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, is not unused to playing grotesques. So he catches Dury's defensive pre-emptive aggression to perfection, and sings the songs with leering relish. Olivia Williams is long-suffering wife Betty, who strikes up a strongly supportive bond with Ian's girlfriend Denise (Naomie Harris), and even helps the couple set up home in the sleazy Oval Mansions tower-block, renamed 'Catshit Mansion' by Ian. Fiercely scared to reveal his vulnerability, frequently obnoxious, Ian was easy to love, impossible to live with. In their fractured relationship, when Ian petulantly denies he's reliant on her, Denise lobs his callipers off the balcony, leaving his crew to retrieve it where it's become entangled in the tree below - joking "we can rebuild him!"

Dury's son Baxter first encounters Denise when he unexpectedly walks in on the odd couple lustily sixty-nineing on the bed. Navigating the problems of his own adolescence, an already awkward process complicated by his frequently absent father's outrageous example, he is convincingly portrayed by Bill Milner (Son Of Rambow). While first-time feature-director Mat Whitecross recreates the art-punk milieu in exact detail, clear down to replicating the cover-shoot for classic album New Boots & Panties on the Vauxhall Bridge Road pavement outside the 'Axford' shop-front.

The film opens with the literal implosion of Kilburn & The High Roads, the pub-rock band that took Dury from lecturing at Canterbury Art College, into low-level pop visibility. "Never let it be said that failure went to my head," he quips, already considered too old, and with a disintegrating band. But it's in the toilet dressing room of The Britannia that his fortunes change. His disillusioned pianist-collaborator Russell Hardy quits. And Chaz Jankel appears, to be greeted with "do us a favour, fuck off!" In Dury's support, long-term writing partner Chaz points out that "what happened to him, happened a long time ago." And that's the key phrase.

Dury's damaged intensity is a hard-earned defence mechanism learned from contracting polio at age seven, and its skin-crawlingly horrendous aftermath of institutionalised care. Wesley Nelson, as young Ian, accurately conveys his humiliating fear as a 'raspberry ripple' - a cripple. Ray Winstone plays Dury's well-intentioned but feckless father, as a kind of Arfur Daley dodgy geezer variant. Both of which fuse to leave Dury determined to live larger than life, and be self-reliant. When a journalist enquires what he's missed out on he quips, "The only thing I've ever missed is a few buses..."

As the Sex Pistols happen he derides them for stealing his razor-blade earring idea, but with a fistful of well-crafted new songs he recruits a band - the Blockheads, in an arty paint-spattered fast-cut animated pop-video-style sequence. Soon, "playing the fool in a six-piece band," he reconnects with Charlie Gillett and Dave Robinson, from the Kilburn days, to reboot with the legendary 'Live Stiffs' freak-show tour of oddball misfits, with Wreckless Eric and Elvis Costello. Punk is a movement wide enough to draw his theatrical burlesque into itself and celebrate his celebration of diseased romance. A step into hits...

The movie reveals 'rhythm stick' is not a conductor's baton, but one of a litany of names for the penis recited in a game with Dexter. Then, watching the Kirk Douglas "I am Spartacus" sequence, he answers an invitation to write a theme for the 'UN year of the disabled' with Spasticus Autisticus. Despite the painfully autobiographical context of this 'war-cry' for disability the BBC instantly bans it in a fit of political correctness. Yet it survives, and thrives.

So was Ian Dury's career defined by his disability, as filmic compression suggests? No, he went way beyond that. He weren't half a clever bastard. But would he have been the same artist he became without the disability? No, probably not, it provides the anger, the urgency, and the motivation. Dury supposedly contracted polio as a water-borne contamination from his childhood enthusiasm for the southend swimming pool. When Baxter finally overcomes his own fear of water, submerging in Dury's outdoor pool, and symbolically rising triumphant, it neatly breaks the cycle of his father's stigma. Baxter is credited as adviser for the film. But as Dury gleefully teases, "never let the truth get in the way of a good story..."

DVD extras: cast and crew interviews, deleted scenes, and B-roll footage.

Premonitions in paperback - click to order

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