‘Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll’
Ian Dury, one of the most interesting figures of England’s revolutionary punk era in the late ’70s, now has his very own “Doors”-style bio-pic. The sometimes harsh but always catchy discography of Dury makes for a stellar soundtrack, but unfortunately, the rest of the film falls flat with amateur direction and overzealous camera tricks. A marathon listening of Dury’s albums on your own time will provide a much more meaningful experience than anything this film can provide.
One criticism that cannot be leveled against “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” is lack of research. The script, written by Paul Viragh, hits all the major points in Dury’s life with adequate care. The evolution of Dury and his music throughout the run-time is palatable, and the overall presentation of the British punk scene is impressively engrossing.
Dury’s life certainly seems three-act worthy: a survivor of polio stricken with infantile paralysis fell in love with punk music at art school. He later went on to form his own band, the Blockheads, and rocked the pub scene. In between electric live performances, Ian Dury and the Blockheads released two sassy, raunchy albums with a fist-pumping kind of soul.
The narrative in the movie occasionally loses its identity, sometimes heading into bio-pic parody (à la “Walk Hard”) before side-lining into a completely serious moment. These shifts in tone happen so quickly it’s jarring.
Not helping the occasionally confused plot is the headache-inducing editing. While a dependence on rapid-fire cuts and schizophrenic camera movements might work in something like “Moulin Rouge,” here it feels like an undergrad film student mistake, an effort to produce what can’t be conveyed through text or performance through post-production.
There’s also an odd choice of narration provided by Dury using song segments during his performances. This tends to give the movie an out-of-place ’80s family film vibe, which is just about as antithetical to the on-screen events as one could possibly get. Another way they fill out the gaps is with stock art/video montages as decade descriptors, which do little to set up the scene or the emotion therein; they only come across as cheap.
Performances run the gamut from tolerable to misinformed, with only Olivia Williams’ as Betty (mother of Dury’s two children) standing out as memorable. The actor playing Dury, Andy Serkis, is a victim of bad direction, playing the character as a stereotypical horny, rage-against-the-man rebel This bad boy act only makes Dury come off as bland and – worst of all – routine. Serkis’s energy usually feels like it’s in the right place, but in this case, it’s all put towards an inappropriate conception of the character. Naomi Harris’ Denise (Dury’s lover) is mostly one-note, taking the idea of the “bohemian girl” to its hilt with every moment of screen-time, despite the lack of actual character development.
The film’s exploration of Dury’s songs is a double-edged sword. While care and appreciation were obviously devoted to the tunes themselves – and their themes and energy are rendered with love – their place in the story is dragged down by the script. Particularly in regards to the ballads of the punk-star’s career, the film seems keen to embellish the lyrics and their artsy flair rather than the actual impact on the characters or, god forbid, the music scene around them. This surface understanding of the music is perfectly fine for a cursory examination of Dury’s writing abilities, but not for a biographical examination of the musician within the larger music scene context. The shallow treatment wouldn’t even be acceptable in an album’s liner notes.
The film’s production falls mostly in line with the script and cinematography, dense with Wikipedia-esque factoids but suffering from art-school mistakes and cliché direction. Lighting, hair and costume design are all functional but practically non-existent in terms of providing a relevant visual tone. Sets are almost exactly as you expect, but serve the needed emotional undercurrent because of it. Nothing exists beyond the basic foundations of “Sex & Drugs” to leave any impression beyond the end credits.
Pretty sure this is exactly the kind of stuff that Ian Dury reacted against in his time. Cardboard characters playing out a stereotypical script against non-existent production design; it all screams of an amateurish production whose only fan of the actual material was the screenwriter. Actors do their best but are set up for failure with the lame direction.
Credit to the filmmakers for not messing up the songs themselves, but your local music store owner could probably tell this story infinitely better.