Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

Movies
4 out of 5 stars
After a fine start to the decade with ‘24 Hour Party People’, the British music film has become an increasingly drab prospect. Sanitised, reverential biopics like ‘Control’ and ‘Nowhere Boy’ have reduced our most vital rock legends to overanalysed everymen, robbing them of power and mystery in an effort to ‘understand’ them – a pointless and impossible task best left to the cultural scholars.

But ‘Road to Guantanamo’ director Mat Whitecross is having none of it. Tackling the rise and fall of bolshy proto-punk gobshite Ian Dury, ‘Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll’ is a riot of clattering noise and kaleidoscopic colour, off-kilter imagery and foul language, all the good things the title promises and much more. Taking his cue not just from former collaborator Michael Winterbottom’s celebrated Factory exposé but from Todd Haynes’s ramshackle, revisionist rock ’n’ roll masterpieces, ‘Velvet Goldmine’ and ‘I’m Not There’, Whitecross presents Dury as a verbally abusive, dishonest, thoroughly disreputable but endlessly fascinating lyrical genius, exploring his past in a way that informs – but never seeks to explain – his present.

That present is the mid-’70s, the period in which Dury (Andy Serkis)  split from his old band Kilburn And The High Roads – and from long-suffering spouse Betty (Olivia Williams) – to form the Blockheads, with whom he would achieve stellar homegrown success. Taking up with teenage tearaway Denise (Naomie Harris), Dury attempts to juggle the demands of family, fame and mounting alcoholism, but always ends up putting his own needs first.

It’s this refusal to sugarcoat Dury’s shortcomings that really impresses: yes, Whitecross and screenwriter Paul Viragh ask us to empathise with their self-pitying, class-obsessed, emotionally and physically crippled hero, but they never expect us to forgive his excesses. Serkis’s performance is remarkable, alternating between Gollum-esque bug-eyed lunacy and a more subtle, heartfelt portrait of a life in turmoil.

A scene in which Dury revisits the hospital where he spent his childhood, coming face to face with a new generation of angry young outcasts, is quietly heartbreaking: sentimental, perhaps, but entirely schmaltz-free. Similarly, the central relationship between Dury and twitchy pre-teen son Baxter (a superb Bill Milner) does a great job of outlining the unpredictable lows and (often literal) highs of having a deadbeat pop star for a father. You don’t need to be a fan of Dury’s music to enjoy ‘Sex & Drugs…’. This is just gorgeous, celebratory cinema, unfettered and courageous, if unashamedly scattershot, much like the man himself. Forget young Lennon and his tedious Oedipal angst – this is the one by which a new decade of music movies will be judged.

By: Tom Huddleston

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