Back in the day Ian Dury was the face of smart but fairly widely accepted punk: never going for that brash in-your-face stuff but instead making his version all melodic with astute lyrics and a unique voice. Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll tells his story, from the late 60s when his son Baxter was born to the 80s when he offended nearly everyone with his song ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ (well, everyone who wasn’t intelligent enough to get it).
Now, rock biopics often swing one of two ways: they can either be a work of genius or a complete overindulgence, feasting off the director and screenwriter’s love of a specific artist and the desire to create a “message”. This unfortunately sits closer to the latter than the former. From the off it’s clear that this film is a bit of a jumbled mess of ideas and flight-of-fancy. Initially, you believe Dury is meant to be narrating the story of his own life through performing his sings and using rhyming couplets (and slang) to give a sort of artistic autobiographical account. Instead, this idea is thrown to the wind after the first quarter of the film is over: you get to see him singing, but no theatrics are shown again.
Then there’s the graphics that pop up in the opening credits: fair enough, you might think. But then this psychedelic rush of colours comes at you again at a very random point in the film and confuses you entirely. Let’s not forget the really very strange take on camerawork either. It’s sort of a cross between classical dramatic filmmaking (standard shots, close-ups etc.) and a more discordant Trainspotting. And some of that was pretty weird.
Aside from this, the issues explored in the film are less rock biopic, more rock cliché. From the off Dury is characterised as a bad father and despite his attempts you don’t think that he’s actually any good at being a parent: instead, Dury is presented as someone misguided who thinks it’s a good idea to let his only son hang out with druggies who introduce him to speed and let him try spliffs. It’s all a little too clichéd to believe really. As you might have already guessed, Sex and Drugs And Rock and Roll morphs from a decent biography to rock’n’roll parable about the dangers of drink, drugs and notoriety. Dury even smashes up a recording studio towards the end, which, while totally believable, is probably as close to clichéd nirvana as you’re going to ever get.
Well, that’s the bad points over with. Now to the good: the acting. Andy Serkis is frankly brilliant as Dury and he brings a very genuine, natural feel to the performance. Er, that is natural when it comes to playing born showman Dury. He also sings all of the songs, which are just as excellent as the original recordings. He copes well with the strange cameras and ideas going on here, managing to be an excellent anchor amongst all the mess and jumble of the film. I have to give some praise to Bill Milner as well, who plays Dury’s son Baxter with a great deal of panache. Strangely, Baxter’s journey from bullied posh-boy to hard-kid to rock’n’roll skeptic is an awful lot more genuine than Dury’s own journey. Somehow, you wonder what the movie would have been like if told from Baxter’s perspective: it would have been different, perhaps still a little cliched, but maybe more emotionally involving than the vapidness that seems to shroud this film.
Verdict: Dury’s powerhouse performance and Milner’s coming-of-age portrayal are definitely the best points of Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll. The tired rock’n’roll cliches and overall disjointed feel of the plot and direction scupper what could have been a great biopic, instead turning into standard fare.
6 OUT OF 10