Tag Archives: biopic

BIFF 2011 #19: Goya (East Germany/Russia/Bulgaria/Yugoslavia/Poland 1971)

In one of the film's funniest sequences, Goya shuffles the line-up of the Spanish Royal Family for a famous (and satirical) painting.

The biggest treat for me and many others in this year’s festival was a rare chance to see one of the epic productions from Eastern Europe that competed with Hollywood’s international productions in the 1960s and 1970s. We were told that this was probably the first time that the film had been shown in the UK and that the print was probably one prepared for a screening in Paris at its time of release. The fact that it was a 70mm print in good condition was arguably the main attraction for festivalgoers on the Widescreen Weekend. There was only one slight problem. This print had German dialogue and French subtitles. My French and German are both too poor to deal with complex dialogue so I did miss some aspects of the plot – I’ve had to research the life of Francisco Goya in order to try to sort out some scenes. Though I felt slightly frustrated, this didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the film. I hear German slightly better than French, but I found myself blotting out the dialogue and reading the subtitles. I think that this shows how ‘institutionalised’ one can be in reading subtitles. I also noted that because I was reading a language I only dimly remember learning, I often couldn’t decipher the whole subtitle line before it had disappeared. This at least means that I can now appreciate the difficulty slow readers have with subtitles. The film did actually include some dubbing since two language versions (German and Russian) were produced and actors came from several countries.

Goya is a biopic of the Spanish painter (1746-1828) who straddled the final years of the tradition of the old masters and the birth of modern fine art. The full German title of the film is Goya – oder Der arge Weg der Erkenntnis, which translates as Goya – or the Hard Way to Enlightenment. This full title gives a clue to what marks this film out from the several other Goya biopics (a Spanish film appeared in the same year and the most recent film to feature Goya was Milos Forman’s Goya’s Ghost (2006)). Goya as envisioned in Eastern Europe was a figure who had created for himself a position of some importance as a ‘court painter’ to Spain’s ancien régime. But he was also a man of sexual appetite, a believer in the rights of his Spanish compatriots and a supremely talented artist eager to try new ideas and develop new techniques. It was inevitable that he would struggle in a situation in which ‘enlightenment’, embodied in the French philosophes of the late 18th century, would come to Spain, first peacefully but eventually via war and occupation. In the meantime, Goya and other liberal figures faced not only the protocols of court but also the terrible power of the ‘Spanish Inquisition’. Being labelled a heretic could lead to flogging, imprisonment and then exile – even for those who ‘abjured’.

Goya was one of ten films made at the great DEFA studio in Berlin in a 70mm format. The sheer scale and cost of the film required resources from across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Yugoslavia stood in for Spain but a genuine Spanish musical group contributed to the score. The original cut was some 164 mins (with an interval) but this print was 134 mins and we watched it straight through. This is described as the ‘director’s cut’ in the DVD promotional material but there was discussion around this screening as to what actually prompted the decision to cut the film. The popular theory was that because the film was quite complicated in terms of narrative, the cuts were made because there was a danger of audience alienation. This is interesting because in my experience cutting often makes a narrative more, not less, opaque.

The film was introduced by Wolfram Hanneman (see his introduction here) who told us we would find the film ‘difficult’ even without the language issues. I didn’t really take this on board at the time, but when I researched Goya’s life afterwards I realised that the film was non-linear in its presentation of events. Since the juxtaposition of scenes still made sense in terms of revealing Goya’s ‘path to enlightenment’, this didn’t bother me too much. I don’t really have any strong feelings about 70mm (the main interest for much of the audience) and I can’t really comment on the quality of the print, except that it seemed in pretty good nick. The production was indeed epic and there was plenty of visual feasting unencumbered by language difficulties. The remarkable set pieces around the procedures of the Spanish Inquisition work very well and, as Keith remarked afterwards, this is a biopic of an artist that really does seem to say something about creativity and the artistic process. DEFA employed a small army of illustrators and artists to copy Goya’s paintings at different stages of development.

Goya (Donatas Banionis) with The Duchess of Alba (the Yugoslav actress, Olivera Katarina)

The other major interest in the film is Konrad Wolf as director and Donatas Banionis as Goya. The Lithuanian actor Banionis is the cosmonaut in Solaris and I thought he was terrific as Goya (he also played Beethoven in another DEFA biopic). Wolf (1925-1982) is controversial as a German Jew who fled with his communist family to Moscow in the 1930s and was educated and trained in the Soviet Union before returning to Berlin to work at DEFA. Despite his high status within DEFA there must have been some concern that Wolf was pro-Soviet, although others thought that he had liberal tendencies. I found it difficult to discern any authorial thumbprints on the Goya story that might hint at ideological sub-texts. The film was an adaptation of a novel by Lion Feuchtwanger and Wolf shared screenplay credit with the Bulgarian Angel Vargenshtain. This isn’t my field but perhaps someone would like to comment on Wolf’s political views?

A Region 1 DVD of the film with a slightly cropped image is available on Amazon and I’m told some of the extras are interesting. It’ll have to go on my long list of movies to acquire so that I can re-watch it with English subs.

Howl (US 2010)

James Franco as Allen Ginsberg in 'Howl'

This little film seems to be causing a fuss in the US and over here quite a few people don’t seem to like it – but it seemed to me both eminently watchable and useful in exploring how poetry can be a political form.

Howl is the story of how a poem by the beat poet Allen Ginsberg became the subject of an obscenity trial in 1957. Some critics have termed it a biopic but I wouldn’t classify in that way since this is not about a character’s life as such, but about a very specific period of it and the impact that his best-known work had on ideas about free speech. Instead, I think it is a form drama-documentary and this is possibly why it is controversial – though a gay-themed movie still seems capable of attracting bigoted comments in the US.

The film is about the ‘beat generation’. I only know of the characters involved at secondhand through the writings of Jack Kerouac and the poetry (written and performed) by the so-called Mersey Poets of the late 1960s in the UK, most of all Adrian Henri (who modelled some of his performances on Allen Ginsberg). Most of the central characters in the beats story appear in the film. The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was the publisher of Howl, the long poem at the centre of the trial in which he was the defendant. Kerouac features in the story alongside his travelling companion Neal Cassady (who was instrumental in helping Ginsberg to face his homosexuality – as it was usually termed in the 1950s).

The film has four elements which are interwoven. The trial in San Francisco is presented as a straight courtroom drama with a cast of excellent American character actors such as David Strathairn, Bob Balaban, John Hamm, Mary Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels etc. James Franco plays Ginsberg who is seen in two different elements. In one, he ‘performs’ the poem ‘Howl’ in front of an audience of beats and supporters in San Francisco’s Six Gallery – a hangout for ‘hipsters’. In the second he is interviewed by someone offscreen and we see flashbacks/stills of his relationships and adventures (Ginsberg took many photos himself). Finally, there is an animation section which illustrates some of the lines of poetry picking up on 1950s comics but also expressionism and various other forms. At the end of the film we get a brief archive clip of the real Ginsberg towards the end of his life and stills with titles explaining what happened to the other characters.

The issue at the centre of the film is freedom of speech and the trial follows a similar pattern to the ‘Chatterley Trial’ three years later in the UK, i.e. academics give evidence for and against the literary merits of the work. Whereas the British case was heavily circumscribed by issues of social class, the taboo in the American trial is more concerned directly with the use of sexually explicit language. As in the British case, the prosecution look rather silly. But despite the supreme importance of artistic freedom, the film is actually about so much more. The experiences of the beats that formed the material for the poem took place in America in the early 1950s – that period of rising affluence but also rising alienation as felt by anyone who didn’t conform to the consumerism and anti-communism of Eisenhower’s America. The beat generation is associated with the jazz scene, avant-garde literature, drug use, sexual liberation – everything in fact associated with ‘alternatives’ to conformist society.

The key to the way in which the film elicits its responses is probably related to the use of animation. My companion at the screening knows much more about the beats than I do and though he enjoyed the film overall, he wasn’t that keen on the animation. I’ve seen similar comments in UK reviews and from other friends. I didn’t really have these problems. Perhaps I am the more naïve viewer for whom the animation is designed to be an attractive way into the poem? This was certainly the intention of the very experienced co-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Epstein was responsible for one of the first major documentaries about the gay community with The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) and with Friedman he made the fascinating and very useful Celluloid Closet in 1995, exploring the history of representations of gays in the cinema. My first reaction to the animated sequences (which literally illustrate parts of the poem, so that we hear the lines again over the animation that we have already heard Ginsberg/Franco delivering in the gallery) was that I recognised what I thought were comic book graphics. I think Ginsberg says something about this at one point. From the excellent official website (download the Press Pack) I learned that the person with overall responsibility for the animation is Eric Drooker, a New York artist and ‘graphic novelist’. Ginsberg collected Drooker’s work for several years before the two collaborated on Illuminated Poems, an illustrated version of Ginsberg’s poems including ‘Howl’. There is an interesting interview with Drooker about his work on the film here.

An example of Drooker's work on 'Howl' from the website link above.

You can get a sense of the film from the official trailer:

If your interest in the beats and associated American ‘alternative’ films is piqued by this film, YouTube has plenty of other material, including these films by Shirley Clarke and Robert Franks both important starting points for Epstein and Friedman:

It’s also worth listening to Emile de Antonio on documentaries and the beats:

Carlos (France/Germany 2010)

Carlos (Édgar Ramírez) takes Sheikh Yamani (Badih Abou Chakra), the Saudi oil minister hostage

This post refers to the 165 mins UK cinema release of the film which exists in longer film versions in other territories as well as in a much longer mini-series version for TV and DVD. The film is a fictionalised account of the exploits and ‘domestic’ life of the Venezuelan assassin/guerilla fighter/revolutionary soldier ‘Carlos’, sometimes referred to as ‘The Jackal’ after the fictional character created by Frederick Forsyth. His real name is Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (born 1949) and the events depicted in this film version date from the period 1973-1994, during which time Carlos was mainly concerned with supporting one of the Palestinian guerilla factions, the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), although seemingly for a faction of the PFLP run by Wadie Haddad, who was eventually expelled from the organisation. The film’s main set piece is the attack on the 1975 OPEC (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) Meeting in Vienna and the attempt to use hostages in a scheme to discredit Saudi Arabia and support Iraq – thus the convoluted politics of the Middle East during the Cold War.

Cutting the film out of 334 minutes of material (the longest TV cut) means that the structure of the film is rather unbalanced and I did feel that the last third of the film was something of an anti-climax, partly because it comprised scenes separated by fades to black which both signified the sometimes large leaps forward in time, but also for the audience the suggestion that bits of the story were being missed out. The IMDB details suggest this, showing that the later scenes in the film appear in Episode 2 (of 3) in the TV version. Despite the possibility that watching the film on video might offer a more coherent experience, I’m glad I saw the ‘Scope print in a cinema.

As a production, Carlos is certainly impressive. It ranges across locations in several countries, all of them represented with a sense of authenticity. The characters (from many different countries and backgrounds) are all well represented by convincing actors and in the central role Édgar Ramírez is phenomenal – not least in his ability to speak several different languages fluently. Unlike Hollywood films, this French-German production requires all the characters to speak in first languages where feasible. Carlos speaks English to several German characters, but also French, Spanish and Arabic as required. Other than that he has to follow the De Niro line in Raging Bull and gain/lose weight throughout the film (something emphasised by several nude scenes) and age twenty years – both of which he achieves with aplomb.

The film has gained rave reviews from many critics and appeared on several ‘best of’ lists for 2010 but I’m still not sure. Putting aside the structural problems and working just on this 165 minutes, I think that it is probably best summed up as being a major film which is seriously flawed. The successes I think are first the representation of a now historical era – certainly the world before 1989, the bulk of the film. I did feel that the film captured something of a world that I remember (almost entirely from television) and it made me think about the changes. The kind of security that we now take for granted was almost non-existent then and was instituted largely, I assume, because of the airline hi-jacks and attacks carried out by the PFLP and other groups in the early 1970s. But these representations also throw up some surprising elements of almost black comedy, e.g. when a little blue and white UK police ‘panda car’ arrives after an attack in London or the seemingly old-fashioned Austrian police have to deal with ruthless guerillas. The other big change is in the lack of obvious American presence in most of the film. They may be manipulating other agents, but the CIA don’t make an appearance until late on.

The other major strength of the film is that in the long hostage sequence, it is possible to suspend disbelief and become engaged with Carlos as a guerilla leader thinking on his feet. Earlier too in a confrontation with police, we can feel that he is doing the logical thing, brutal though it may be. This isn’t a Hollywood thriller where we identify simply with an individual, with Carlos we do get the chance to explore whether he really is a revolutionary figure – if he cares about a cause and weighs up the violence with the aims of his mission. My feeling is that the balance shifts over the course of the film and in the latter stages he is a much more conventional figure.

The real problem in the film for me is in the script and in particular the dialogue. I’ve never knowingly discussed revolution with a real revolutionary but I felt that much of the dialogue, especially in the last third, was almost comic in its use of clichés – like some kind of TV sketch parody. This wasn’t helped by the relationships Carlos had with various women, but especially his East German wife, Magdalena. I didn’t get to see the Baader-Meinhof film, but I know it met a very mixed reception. What is it about the German ‘feminist revolutionaries’ in this period? I found all three German women in the film a trifle odd. One seemed very ‘ordinary’, one was clearly suffering from a psychosis and Magdalena appeared more Mata Hari than 1970s feminist. Perhaps they were accurate portrayals but as representations they just didn’t seem to fit in. The script is by Dan Franck and Olivier Assayas. Assayas also directed the film and should take great credit for the set piece scenes and the overall direction of actors.

Reading through a wide range of internet postings, I think that it is clear that many posters treat the film as a kind of superior crime thriller, focusing on Carlos as a certain kind of action protagonist. This often comes across as a liking for a ‘boy’s film’. If I’m disappointed it is because the political questions are much more interesting for me. I’d like the film to have been more like Motorcycle Diaries (I would be very interested to learn about Carlos as a teenager) and less like the Mesrine films (which I enjoyed as genre films).

Useful review of the 319 minute cut.

The US trailer:

Stones in Exile (US/UK 2010)

This is the latest in a seemingly endless stream of rock biopics and archive features covering bands from the 1960s, 70s etc. The short (60 mins) documentary was shown on BBC1 last night, will be on iPlayer in the UK for the next 6 days and re-broadcast on BBC2 on Saturday 29 May. It’s certainly worth a look, not least for the still photography and home movie footage from the period.

In 1971 the Rolling Stones left the UK to go into exile in France, partly because the kind of English country house style living some of them had followed was becoming difficult to manage and partly because their finances were so messed up by poor financial management that they felt that they needed to escape the progressive tax regime of the new Labour government – Bill Wyman makes the usual completely erroneous claim that the tax rate was ‘93%’ (erroneous because the full ‘super rate’ only applied to a proportion of earnings). I’d been a big fan up until then, but lost interest in the early 1970s.

With a contractual obligation to produce an album, the Stones decided to try to make one in the South of France. With band members scattered across Provence they tried to hire various recording facilities but couldn’t find anything suitable and ended up using Keith Richard’s mansion Nellcôte in Villefranche-sur-Mer. They rehearsed and performed in the basement and recorded instruments played in different rooms in the house – with everything pulled together in a mobile recording studio truck parked in the drive. The whole process took forever but eventually produced a raw new sound which after tarting up in Los Angeles became one of their best albums, Exile on Main Street.

The documentary is both intriguing and frustrating. The montage technique of Super 8 film, black and white contact prints and hand drawn graphics used throughout the film matches the design of the eventual album sleeve and provides a strong nostalgic kick for anyone with brain cells left to remember the era. It was truly another world at that time – but perhaps only if you were in your twenties and deeply engaged with rock culture. Someone in the film argues that rock – and music culture generally – was much more dominant then and I think that is probably accurate.

The narrative of the film is confused and incomplete. We learn something about the characters and the working conditions, but not a lot about exactly why this was a ‘new sound’. In some ways the strongest statement is about the differences between the band members. Jagger is absent a lot of the time – unsurprising perhaps because he’s about to marry a pregnant Bianca. When he does turn up he is organised and more seems to get done. Bill and Charlie play up to their ‘ordinary blokes’ status and it’s sad to hear Bill whingeing on about having to import PG Tips and Bird’s Custard.  They live some distance away and presumably have families. Meanwhile Keith plays the resident musical genius operating to a different biological clock and imbibing far too much of everything. His partner Anita Pallenberg is the only woman actually living in the house and seems to look after the logistics of daily life. Finally the younger men – Stones guitarist Mick Taylor, saxophonist Bobby Keyes, recording engineer Andy Johns etc. just enjoy the access to drugs, booze and girls. It doesn’t add up to much. The interest is in the snippets of information about the locals. What did they make of the Stones? France never had the same kind of rock culture – though it did have Johnny Halliday and Serge Gainsbourg. In some ways the Stones were just another bunch of wealthy Brits strutting about the Riviera where they were tolerated. Pallenberg comments that you could hear the music from the centre of the town and we see scenes indicating their celebrity attraction – but without the obsessive media intrusion they might attract in the UK or US.

My biggest disappointment was the lack of reference to the visit made to the villa by Gram Parsons. He appears in some of the photos taken by Domenique Tarlé and posted on Rolling Stone‘s website. According to an Observer article by Sean O’Hagan, Jagger was jealous of Parsons’ influence on Richards. Around this time I guess I was more interested in Gram than the Stones and I do wonder what he and Richards could have come up with if Jagger had been kept away. But, of course, that didn’t happen – Gram was “asked to leave”. The film includes various talking heads giving making fairly banal points. The likes of Martin Scorsese, Jack White and Don Was I’m sure have interesting things to say, but not here. I think what I learned most was about how the album artwork was designed and put together by Robert Frank.

The film was premiered at Cannes and the BBC screening is bookended by Alan Yentob and Mick Jagger – the latter introducing the Cannes screening in French. It was made by Passion Pictures, produced by John Battsek and directed by Stephen Kijak. According to IMDB, the film has been sold for TV around the world so you should get to see it wherever you are. Fans on IMDB are rather lukewarm. One suggests watching it with the sound turned off on the original album playing through. (The film was released to go with yet another digital re-issue of the album with 10 extra tracks.) Another suggests that at least there are clips from films that haven’t been properly released – Cocksucker Blues?

Kundun (US 1997)

Kundun – the Dalai Lama (left) with three of his counsellors

Kundun is Martin Scorsese’s biopic about the 14th Dalai Lama who left Tibet in 1959 after increased persecution by occupying Chinese forces. I was offered the chance to introduce the film and accepted, partly because I didn’t see the film on release and I was intrigued about what I would find – especially in the context of my recent viewing of Shutter Island.

Kundun was made for Disney. It cost $28 million – mostly I’m guessing on the shoot in Morocco (as well as North America) and the matte and digital work in post-production. The cast are all unknown Tibetans who speak different forms of accented English (the English subtitles on the DVD are helpful here). The production team includes Scorsese regulars Dante Ferretti on production design and costume design and Thelma Schoonmaker as editor. Exceptional cinematography from Roger Deakins and a score from Philip Glass make for a memorable experience . I just wish that I’d seen the film on a giant screen with a decent sound system.

The film had a difficult release. Disney failed to support it properly – giving way to objections by the Chinese authorities in order to protect their future relationships and media deals in the territory. Some critics were very negative about the film and Scorsese certainly suffers because of the perception that he is an ‘action’ director. I’ve seen all of Scorsese’s features (bar The Last Temptation of Christ) and I think that my favourite is The Age of Innocence – probably because I taught it a couple of years ago, but mainly because it is so clearly drawing on Scorsese’s vast knowledge of international cinema. There are some similarities with Kundun, most noticeably in terms of the fascination with rituals and forms of etiquette. Both films I think are made partly in hommage to Visconti and The Leopard. A further criticism – or perhaps an assumption from those who haven’t seen the film – is that it is another example of an American take on ‘Bhuddist chic’. Also in 1997, Jean-Jacques Annaud released Seven Years in Tibet starring Brad Pitt as the German who escaped from a British internment camp in India and spent time in Tibet from 1944-1951.) Earlier, Bernardo Bertolucci made Little Buddha (1994) in Hollywood. The leading Buddhist and Tibetan supporter in Hollywood is Richard Gere who has been involved in many promotional activities.

There are also some very positive reviews of Kundun, including one from Andrew O’Hehir in Sight and Sound (April 1998). He takes the film to be a triumph of form and pure cinema. I think that I would agree with that position – but I find the lack of narrative drive and emotional engagement a problem. The film is essentially a biopic or to be more precise a ‘religious biopic’. In an interview in Sight and Sound (February 1998) with Amy Taubin, Scorsese refers to Rossellini’s Francesco, guillare di Dio (1950) and he dedicates the film to his mother – an indication that he thought about the stories of the saints from his childhood. Yet he declares that it can’t be a film like Rossellini’s and that as a Hollywood film it will inevitably be compared with epic films like Lawrence of Arabia – but it’s not that kind of film either. Scorsese calls his film a ‘hybrid’ and rails against US critics and what he sees as their failure to understand cinema outside Hollywood. On this I think he is correct. As I watched it, I was conscious of many films set in Central Asia – Chinese, Korean, Mongolian etc. and also of the ‘international’ epics such as Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky (1990). But these films all have strong casts and usually quite strong scripts. I think I agree with Amy Taubin’s Sight and Sound comments that the weak element in Kundun is the script. (It’s worth remembering that Rossellini’s Francis was scripted by Fellini even if the monks were non-actors.) I’m not sure what specific expertise Melissa Mathison had that led to her adapting the Dalai Lama’s autobiography. She is best known as the writer of ET – based on an idea by Steven Spielberg – and her adaptation of The Black Stallion. According to Wikipedia, she approached the Dalai Lama and interviewed him to create the property which was then offered to Scorsese.

The film is divisible into three parts. The first recounts the early life of the ‘Kundun’ (the ‘presence’) and involves several children playing the boy at different ages. In some ways this is the most familiar Hollywood part of the film, but since there are four actors in all playing the Kundun and most of the other characters are monks, it requires a tighter script to involve an audience I think. Part two sees the now 15 year-old Kundun facing the problem of what to do about the territorial claims of the PRC founded in 1949. This at least gives us some international politics with a trip to Beijing and the possibility of action and then in the final part the film moves into the flight from the Chinese. This last section becomes more like an art film with its shifting time periods and stunning imagery, including dream sequences. I got the impression that Scorsese enjoyed this most and I seem to remember reading that in the editing process he and Schoonmaker decided to stop worrying about matching shots and locations and began to cut together different monastery rooms and chambers to create a mood or tone rather than narrative continuity. I think too that this decision also affected how some of the earlier scenes were edited so that the whole film became less linear and more essay-like.

I feel like I didn’t really learn enough about either Tibet or Buddhism and certainly not enough about the Chinese occupation and persecution of Tibetans. We never understand why the Chinese are so insistent on ‘reclaiming’ Tibet for China. It is interesting how the Kundun looks to the UK and US for support and eventually crosses into India. This ‘westward-looking’ stance may explain something of the Chinese attitude, but it is more complex than that. In 1959, I think that Mao’s concern was that India might become more closely allied with the Soviet Union and securing the border with India in Tibet may have been an important military objective (China and India went to war over this border in 1962). But this doesn’t explain the attitude towards the Tibetans. Perhaps that had more to do with  quenching religious activity within the PRC – most Chinese having some form of attachment to Buddhism. It might have been helpful to know whether the Dalai Lama has any kind of status amongst Buddhists outside Tibet (Buddhism as I understand it does not have formal congregations or leadership). Perhaps this is why the charge of ‘American chic’ has some weight if the Dalai Lama is treated as an iconic figure acting as a focus for American reactions to Chinese oppression. Anyone any thoughts? I suspect that none of this bothered Scorsese much and he did make a great piece of cinema.

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (UK 2010)

Andy Serkis as Ian Dury in a production still accessed via the official website.

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.