Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (2010) dir. Matt Whitecross
Starring: Andy Serkis, Ray Winstone, Olivia Williams, Naomie Harris, Mackenzie Crook, Bill Milner
By Matt McUsic
Right mate! So Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is a very British, very chaotic, very energetic, trip of a film that truly leaves the viewer with a sense of Ian Dury’s spastic roll in the punk rock era. Unfortunately when the dust clears, there is little more than raw energy. The film is a grotesque and even Andy Serkis’ performance evokes memories of Joel Grey in Cabaret. Unfortunately the style of the filmmaking is trying too hard at the beginning, and by the time it settles into the characters we find that we don’t particularly care for any of them.
To say Andy Serkis’ (Gollum from Lord Of The Rings) performance as Ian Dury is not absolutely bitchin’ would be a fat lie. Andy Serkis’ blows us off the map with his frenetic quickwit and deeply felt portrayal of this legendary entertainer. He’s always fun to watch, but the great performance misses something essential, audience identification. Andy never relaxes enough to truly identify with him. Maybe this is not Andy’s fault, maybe this WAS Ian Dury, or maybe it was that the script back-loaded all the scenes where Ian shows his human side. But for whatever the reason, it’s what cost him the BAFTA to Colin Firth for A Single Man. Naomie Harris (28 Days Later, Pirates of the Caribbean) is particularly good as Dury’s girlfriend. She’s the one we most identify with in the film, actually. Overall the performances are fascinating to watch, but the key element of empathy holds us back from truly becoming invested.
The film does a fine job of hitting the biographical highlights of Dury. One thing I missed was how Dury was an art teacher to pay the bills while struggling in his music career. At a certain point he realized he’d gotten good enough at art to realize he wouldn’t be a great artist, and so he changed paths. While not a huge plot point in his life, even one scene of this might have given us some empathy for the guy before he turned into a complete arse. The plot point about Dury’s experience with polio, and becoming a jaded cripple we get hit over the head with and then get sick of it. Still the way the filmmakers come to show Dury’s writing of “Spasticus Autisticus” is brilliant. I actually liked the way the film breezed quickly over the band’s rise to fame, because it showed that little changed in terms of the way Dury lived his life or treated people around him. It drove home the point that he always knew he would get to this place; it was just a matter of time.
The song numbers also had greater potential than was realized. If the filmmakers had placed them in different settings, on different stages it would have helped keep it fresh. Likewise, the fast cutting style for every song got repetitious. If the filmmakers had found a unique way of shooting and editing each song to fit that given song, it would have felt less lazy and been more engaging. Fast camera movement and cutting doesn’t always make for gripping filmmaking.
But the trouble is not that Sex & Drugs is too fast paced a film or too energetic/spastic a film, the trouble lies in that it is what is expected. When I came into the screening I anticipated a somewhat shallow film that would pack a lot of great music and excitement and little emotional resonance, and that’s exactly what I got. The movie lost me because I couldn’t identify with Ian Dury and by the time he displays any compassion it’s too late in the film to care. Sex & Drugs is a wild ride, but not much of an emotional one, at least for the audience. As Dury said, “There are a couple of ways to avoid death, one of them is to be magnificent, this is my favorite way”. Unfortunately for Ian, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll falls sort of magnificence.