Finally got to see Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll at the Hyde Park in Leeds (a 1912 cinema restored to its former glory). I knew I would enjoy the film, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so good. The idea of introducing events in Ian Dury’s life via sketches and performances which start on a music hall stage (The Palace in Watford) and then move into filmed sequences works very successfully – especially in the red plush of the Hyde Park and because I remember seeing Ian Dury and the Blockheads on stage at the Streatham Odeon.
Andy Serkis gives a performance of unnerving power in representing Dury and his singing with the Blockheads is almost perfect. The only downside for me was coming home and reading some less than enthusiastic reviews and some moans by Dury fans. I was already aware that the film had performed disappointingly at the box office. For what it’s worth, I thought this was a more coherent film than the more hyped Nowhere Boy. However, it does have some of that film’s problems in terms of being a biopic but focusing more on the personal than the professional. Sex & Drugs is as much about Dury’s sense of himself as son and father as it is about his music. In this sense it is, like Nowhere Boy, a melodrama – but this time with a clearer sense of an aesthetic strategy. (Dury was roughly the same age as John Lennon, but the key period here is when he was in his mid thirties, not when he was 19.)
The music hall device made me think of several other British films. Bizarrely it made me think of Laurence Olivier as the washed-up comic in The Entertainer (1960), based on John Osborne’s play. The same device is also used in Richard Attenborough’s adaptation of Joan Littlewood’s Oh What a Lovely War (1969). More to the point, perhaps it also has affinities with the storytelling, songs and sketches that appear in Lindsay Anderson’s Oh Lucky Man! (1973). There is also something connected to Tommy! (1975), Ken Russell’s film of Pete Townshend’s rock opera. I’m also reminded of aspects of British TV culture such as Denis Potter plays and aspects of Dr Who. The sketch idea also refers to the political theatre of John McGrath and the 7:84 Theatre Group in the 1970s.
I’m not for a moment suggesting that any of these are deliberate references. Director Mat Whitecross has worked on music videos and also with Michael Winterbottom on, amongst other things, 24 Hour Party People – a much more likely source of reference. Yet the references above do point to the essential Englishness/Britishness of Sex & Drugs. Dury was a product of a childhood in South-East England in the 1940s and 50s and of art school in the 1960s (including teaching). Despite being described as being part of ‘punk’ and ‘New Wave’ music, Dury was neither. Kilburn and the High Roads were part of the pub-rock scene in the early 1970s and their 1979-81 incarnation was a melange of styles with Dury’s stories of English working-class life.
As well as the music and terrific production design (including credits by Peter Blake) the film is noticeable for a terrific supporting cast headed by Naomie Harris and Olivia Williams with smaller parts for Ray Winstone and Toby Jones. Bill Milner as Dury’s son Baxter is very good.
I don’t really understand the poor response to the film. Possibly it is because a) some audiences just can’t cope with what they see as the disjointed sketch structure or b) because – and this is the problem of all biopics – there is too much left out of the Dury story or some liberties are taken with the facts. But the film never claims to be a comprehensively detailed account of a life or to be a realist representation of it. If I was being very picky, I might argue to lop 5 mins off the running time. But I’m not that picky. If I see a better British picture in 2010 I’ll be very pleased.