Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

Is very good indeed.

In Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, a biopic of the singer Ian Dury, director Mat Whitecross and writer Paul Viragh use a vaudevillian stage motif in which Dury, played by Andy Serkis, performs in front of a live audience. It's a bold and exciting conceit that allows them to mix storming performances with anecdotes as Dury tells the story of his life, us of his time in a children's hospital after a bout with polio that left him crippled, his relationship with his father (Ray Winstone), and son Baxter (Bill Milner). These performances then lead into the more classically cinematic - but no less enjoyable - sequences depicting events from Dury's eventful life. Taken together, these disparate pieces create a chaotic and exciting portrait of a complicated and contradictory individual.

I couldn't help but think that a more traditional - and lesser - film would have chosen to use Dury's childhood battle with polio, which left him crippled for the rest of his life, as a life-affirming example of someone overcoming their personal demons, in the style of painfully worthy biopics like Ray. Whitecross, Serkis and Viragh do something much more interesting: They take the view that Dury's polio was not something he overcame but something he channeled. His anger at the treatment he received as a child, being told at one point by a dictatorial orderly (Toby Jones) to accept his crippled nature and give up trying to be "normal", drove him to try to prove the world wrong at any cost.

Serkis delivers one of the finest performances of his career, giving Dury all the fire, swagger and snarl that he had in life. Whether singing live on stage - Serkis performs all his own vocals and the likeness to Dury's voice is eerie - or acting alongside his co-stars, he completely inhabits the skin of Dury, a dedication which extended to allowing one of his legs to atrophy in order to better mimic Dury's gait. He shows off Dury's humour and undeniable magnetism, both on - and off-stage, but also the darker, self-destructive side of his persona, the side that made him quite an isolated figure at the height of the Blockheads' success. Serkis shows us that the very same desire to live life to the fullest was the same thing that led him to hurt those around him.

It's very much a film about relationships between fathers and sons, with the relationship between Ian and his father Bill, and the one between Ian and his son Baxter forming the backbone of the story. We see how Ian's love for his father, despite it being his father who placed him in the hospital that Ian so despised, was key to Ian's personality; it was his father's tough love and belief that everyone has to stand on their own that helped make Ian such a tough, uncompromising character.

Elsewhere, we are shown the effects that Ian's success has on his young son, Baxter. Though they are initially very distant, with Baxter living with Ian's ex-wife, the success of The Blockheads brings them together as Baxter learns to respect and admire his father, whilst also being privy to the darker side of his father's success, an exposure that very nearly kills him. As Baxter, Bill Milner continues to mark himself out as one of the best young British actors out there at the moment. He absolutely nails the mix of love, awe and anger that Baxter feels for his father. If he can stay this good as he grows up then he could very well be the next Christian Bale.

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is an absolutely wonderful film. It's a worthy celebration of a uniquely British figure whose love for life oozes out of the screen. It's joyous and uplifting but not mawkish or sentimental. It's a reason to be cheerful.