When I first came to Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, when it was released on DVD in 2010, I didn’t have that great a knowledge of Ian Dury and the Blockheads beyond a couple of the big singles and the fact that they were one of the slightly different bands lumped in with the first wave of UK punk.
Well, after watching this movie for a second time, I’m not sure I actually know that much more about the band or not, but, as Andy Serkis’ Ian Dury says at the start of the film, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story”.
So we are treated to a rollercoaster ride of a life from Dury’s birth in flashback and his son, Baxter’s, in ‘the present’ to the point where the Blockheads release Spasticus Austisticus as an anthem for the UN’s Year of Disabled Persons in 1981 (with a few temporal detours along the way).
Across the film we see a snapshot of pretty much every facet of Dury in his adult life, from his relationships with his children, wife and girlfriend to the bizarre hybrid of anarchy and dictatorship with which he ran his bands, starting here with the brilliantly named ‘pub-rock’ outfit, Kilburn and the Highroads.
The most striking thing about the film from the start is Serkis’ performance which creates a version of Ian Dury that teeters between the man himself and a version of him designed specifically to tell this version of his story.
But, from the start, where he performs an extract of Billericay Dickie, it is an astonishing feat of performance, especially considering Dury’s unique gait and stage stance due to contracting polio in his youth.
As a music fan the performance is particularly enhanced for me by the musical elements where, rather than miming to the original recordings, Serkis performs as Dury in a series of asides in a music hall style theatre which add to the air of uncertainty around the truthfulness of the tale being told.
The other element of the film that stands out is how it is, in many ways, as much the story of Baxter Dury’s childhood as it is the story of Ian’s musical career.
Baxter is played brilliantly here by Bill Milner who deals with the issues raised in the movie, including emotional scenes relating to his often absent father, bullying and drug use, amazingly for an actor who was no more than 14 at the time of filming.
While most of the film is an uplifting romp of a story through increasing levels of ridiculousness that backs up the notion that Spinal Tap is closer to the truth that anyone could believe, it also has a darker side.
This is dealt with in a highly effective way that, while it doesn’t really say much that’s new on the subjects it deals with; none-the-less raises them in a context which might make them accessible to a new audience.
This is particularly highlighted by the over arching theme embodied by the song Spasticus Autisticus relating to Dury’s treatment in a hospital for disabled children in his youth, which ends up with him returning to the hospital, subsequently transformed into a nurturing school, to lead a music session in a particularly liberating scene, though as with the films rollercoaster nature this is quickly turned on its head as Dury expresses delight at the suicide of one of the wardens who victimized him in his youth.
In the end Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll tells its story in the manner that it seems Ian Dury lived his life, full of emotional and physical ups and downs that created some great music and it never becomes a factor that we don’t know how much of this tale is the truth, because I, at least, was left with the feeling that the spirit is exactly accurate to the life of the man who gave us classic songs like Sweet Gene Vincent, Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick and Reasons To Be Cheerful (Part 3).
And as I’ve mentioned it a few times, this is Spasticus Autisticus: