(Mat Whitecross. 2009. UK. 115 min.)
Imagine the headshot of actor Andy Serkis. Watch his eyes—the man can act with his eyes more expressively than anyone in his generation. In King Kong, wearing the gorilla suit, his eyes were pinpoint flashes of anger, loss, confusion and fury. As Gollum in Lord of the Rings he was constantly looking back over his skinny shoulder, his eyes brimming with fear, longing, rejection and hope. In Sugarhouse, a little-seen Slingshot release, he acted a psychopath named Hoodwink with eyes so engorged with murderous revenge, you wanted to hide under your seat.
Now, as the ‘70s British rocker Ian Dury, a mainstay of the bruising Stiff Records label, Serkis masters the improbable art of acting behind massive dark glasses. When he sidles up to a backstage groupie (Naomie Harris) who’ll become his longtime companion, his rubbery lips get all pouty and wettish, his full nostrils drip and flare and expand—he seems to practically snort up the poor girl. It was a time and era when lots of rockers wanted an Angela Davis knockoff for breakfast. Dury (who died of cancer in 2000) was the leader of the aptly named band The Blockheads, best known for originating one of the defining mantras of the 20th century, “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.” Dury’s music hall eyes pop with longing—like so many underclass musicians struggling to make chump change night after failed night, Dury sees it all, wants it all, and—presto!—begins to pull the colored scarves out of mid-air that signal a rising star who might just get it all.
In Mat Whitecross’s mile-a-minute biopic of Dury’s increasingly convoluted life, with a title compressed into Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, the director makes an immediate, crucial decision that shapes and haunts the film in highly unusual ways. Whitecross wants to tell Dury’s life starting at age 10, when he was struck down by polio, to dig deep into how the disability influenced Dury’s career path including, most importantly, his relations with his father (Ray Winstone), his wife (Olivia Williams), and especially his own son, Baxter (Bill Milner), a mini-Blockhead in formation. It’s a daring directorial choice, because it not only adds a near-grotesque dimension to Dury’s tortured childhood, it also gives him an unsettling poignancy as a failed father, husband, lover, and erratic bandleader.
We see Dury’s faithful and long-suffering wife giving birth to their son in an upstairs bedroom while the band plays (horribly) at a raucous house party downstairs. The Blockheads were and still are an amalgam of unconventional instruments and influences. (About the closest American equivalent in the era was a larger performance ensemble, the Tubes.) Chaz Jankel (well played in the film by Tom Hughes) pre-recorded the film’s soundtrack and still fronts the band today at age 58. The film hews closely to the locales and musical progressions that would produce major hit records like New Boots and Panties, Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick, and the title song, as well as a gleefully delightful tune (sung by Dury in a strait jacket) about his polio, “Spasticus Autisticus.”
Images of Dury’s childhood in an iron lung (he’s played early by a young actor with cerebral palsy, Wesley Nelson) are woven throughout his stage appearances, and several scenes are shot at the Treloar school for younger disabled children. The film never exploits Dury’s limited mobility, but it never forgets it, either; it’s there as a kind of constant tension, much as pushing into the punk idiom, trying to find a niche between better known Stiff artists like Elvis Costello and nastier bands like The Damned, was a constant challenge. Ian Dury was closer to a vaudeville entertainer and provocateur than a rock star, and Serkis seizes on this, his eyes and tilted stance always playing the fool as well as the more conventional Angry Young Man. It’s his saving grace.
Director Whitecross rarely lets Dury or the film slide too far into the hard drug scene that flanked the band; the one menacing figure is a stoned roadie (Ralph Ineson), who introduces Dury’s son to treacherous substances. Whitecross has the chops (videos for Coldplay) and the DP (Chris Ross, the camera operator on Control) to throw up some knockout concert scenes. But that’s not his anchor. Most often we’re tight in on the boy who becomes the man whose fathers a near clone of himself. It’s a father-son odyssey, and it demands 110 percent from its lead actor. In Andy Serkis, you get 110 percent just for openers.