The film follows the rise to fame of Ian Dury following a personal battle with the debilitating disease polio, and the after effects of fame on his relationships. The title of the film is derived from the classic 1977 hit the phrase that it spawned – "Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll".
The formula of the music biopic is basically the same film with only the names and settings changed. The template rarely differs: 'brilliant, natural talent rises above a disadvantaged upbringing to capture the world’s attention only to have fate and/or their inner demons tear them down at the height of their fame’.
Mat Whitecross’ vivid version of the life of Essex-born wildman Ian Dury, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, is no different from the many interchangeable true-life tragedies that have gone before. Like those films, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is compelling because of the inherent drama of a life driven by talent and ambition, usually at the expense of all else. In Dury, Whitecross found a subject of white-hot intensity and cinematic richness; in Andy Serkis, he found a leading man willing to go to all the darkest places offered by Dury’s twisted, tormented life.
Dury was never out of the spotlight and that’s how Whitecross opens the film – the subject steps out from behind the curtain into an orb of white light and addresses the audience. The device soon reveals itself to be a contradiction – we are led to believe he is talking to us about himself, but the house lights come up to reveal his band and the concert crowd here for the show. The message is clear: Dury saw his life as a performance, his existence merely a necessary part of expressing his many talents. (Prior to success as a rock star, Dury attended the Royal College of Art where he was taught by the eminent artist Peter Blake.)
When reality encroached on his life, Dury was unprepared. The bout of polio that he suffered as a boy left him with an unseemly gait that he dealt with mordantly (he refers to himself as a raspberry, as in 'raspberry ripple’, the cockney slang for cripple); his relationship with his father (played in flashback by Ray Winstone) was complex and strained, the elder Dury taking the hardline with both his son’s affliction and artistic temperament; and his current relationships with his estranged wife (the terrific Olivia Williams), his own son (Bill Milner) and his new lover Denise (Naomie Harris) are volatile, self-destructive and always at the service of his music and ego.
Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll ticks all the music biopic boxes, but Whitecross wisely ramps things up by looking at Dury’s life with the same sort of random, chaotic vision that both blessed and cursed the man himself. The film is a wild ride in every sense – the concert performance pieces, the portrayal of the hedonistic lifestyle, the viewing of the artist’s life through the warped prism of his own (in)sanity etc.
The towering talent and dire shortcomings of Dury often manifested themselves in the most unpleasant of ways. In a BBC interview, Serkis revealed that when Dury’s surviving family members read an early draft of the script, they told first-time writer Paul Viragh that Dury was 'much more of a bastard". Serkis, fulfilling the dramatic potential of Dury’s life, finally emerges from beneath the digital prosthetics that have defined his career so far (Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy; King Kong in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake). He doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of the man’s temperament (one club owner feels the force of his wrath following a payment dispute) or the ruthlessness of his ambition (long-term band members are summarily dismissed on a whim). But Serkis finds the artist’s heart as well, which is crucial to audience empathy. Had he not, two hours in the presence of a coarse, brilliant eccentric like Dury would have been much more of a chore.
Mat Whitecross, having previously shared directing honours with Michael Winterbottom on the ultra-realistic The Road to Guantanamo (2006), announces himself a bold visualist with Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. With Andy Serkis personifying Dury in one of the great biopic interpretations, Whitecross has honoured an original, confronting, and daunting talent with a film of a similar nature.