Andy Serkis: From Gollum to Ian Dury

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A new film tells of the colourful life of 1970s music legend Ian Dury. Dave Calhoun visits the set of ‘Sex

The crowd of extras in Watford’s Palace Theatre is getting rowdy. Andy Serkis, in costume and character as the rock poet Ian Dury, is shouting at them – ‘Who was here yesterday? And the day before?’ – in a break before the cameras start rolling again. It’s one of the live scenes in ‘Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll’, a new film about the life of Dury, who died in 2000 at 57 and who, with his band The Blockheads, put out hit singles such as ‘Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick’, ‘What a Waste’ and the song that gives this new film its name – all of them as brilliantly eccentric and unpredictable as the man behind them.

Someone in the throng screams out ‘Precious!’, a cheeky nod to Serkis’s role as Gollum in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies. Hobbling about the stage, dressed in sunglasses and a fez, Serkis hollers back, happy to play along. ‘Precious? I’m not precious,’ he snarls, before letting rip in mock-fury, ‘Fuuuck off!’ Minutes later, the mood turns more reverent as Serkis performs Dury’s slow lament that is the intro to ‘Sweet Gene Vincent’ to a quiet crowd, his voice as convincing as his impression of the limp which Dury lived with after contracting polio as an eight year old. Later on, the cast and crew work on a more lively scene as Serkis tears into ‘Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick’ for a storyline which sees The Blockheads implode into a fight. The saxophonist headbutts the keyboardist, with Dury finally screaming, ‘You’re all fired!’

The director of ‘Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll’ is Mat Whitecross, a 32-year-old filmmaker who spent much of the last decade working alongside Michael Winterbottom. That director’s own anarchic pop portrait ‘24 Hour Party People’ is something of a kindred spirit with this film, the finished version of which proves to be as chaotic as it is spirited and blessed with a no-holds-barred performance from Serkis. It darts about time, from his childhood in a brutal school for disabled children and his early days playing shambolic London pub gigs in the early 1970s to the formation of The Blockheads and their success in the late 1970s as Dury struggled with a volatile personal life. The film often returns to dreamlike scenes of Dury and his band playing live, as if he and his music are narrating his own life.

‘Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll’ is Whitecross’s first solo feature. It’s also the writing debut of actor-filmmaker Paul Viragh, who, along with his old friend Serkis, has been fighting for three years to see the film made. Once Viragh had the idea (‘I thought: God, why has no one done this before?’), he signed up his pal Serkis even before he started on the script. His aim all along was to offer a portrait of Dury’s life that matched the man’s spirit.

‘Ian Dury was an artist before he was a musician,’ explains Viragh over a cup of tea. ‘That pop art thing of collaging lives is how I’ve approached the film – it’s a collage. It’s an impressionistic version of Ian’s life.’

I speak to Serkis over lunch. ‘We never wanted to do a traditional biopic because that wasn’t the core or essence of what Ian was about. He was about live performance. We wanted the film to have a raw, live feel and that would be the dramatic keyhole into his life. It’s very theatrical. Our approach is very abstract and gives a more kaleidoscopic view of the man.’

Which is why the cast and crew are spending four days in this theatre and performing Dury’s songs live, with Serkis singing and a band (including Mick Jagger’s son James) playing live. The film’s music supervisor, Ian Neil, who worked on ‘Control’ and ‘Nowhere Boy’, tells me that he gathered the surviving Blockheads for the film. ‘They laid down all the tracks with Andy doing the vocals. We’ve also got the actors playing live, so when we edit we’ll have a lot to choose from.’ This level of close collaboration with Dury’s friends and family crops up a lot in conversation. Neil tells me that he’s been spending time with Dury’s son Baxter, himself a musician, while Viragh and Serkis both say they have spoken to Dury’s relatives at length.

‘Sophie Dury, his widow, gave me some notes,’ says Serkis. ‘One was that Ian was a tyrannosaurus rex with a maimed left arm and leg. He had ferocious energy, yet it was all coming out of his right side.’ Polio in childhood meant the left side of Dury’s body was weak and so Serkis has been building up his right side. ‘I’ve lost two stone and had my entire body waxed, which was painful, particularly around the nether regions,’ he laughs. He also had to perfect Dury’s voice but comforted himself with the thought that Dury was hardly a classical crooner.

‘He never classed himself as a singer,’ he says. ‘He thought of himself as an entertainer and acted his way through songs. He would admit he was a dreadful singer, so it’s more about getting the lyrics across in an entertaining, challenging way.’

Read our review of ‘Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll’

Author: Dave Calhoun



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