directed by Mat Whitecross
(UK, 115 minutes)
May 23, 2010 3:45 PM, Neptune Theatre
May 25, 2010 9:30 PM, Egyptian Theatre
Was Ian Dury’s son Baxter actually born upstairs in his house whilst the band practiced, roaring their pubby proto-punk in the living room, just as another drummer was sacked during another of the front-man’s pugilistic tantrums? “Stories are what we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better about ourselves,” Andy Serkis as Dury early on warns and teases. “So never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
As a child himself, Dury was baptized into a world of hurt via an infected community swimming hole, most probably. “At the pool, evil lurked, his name was Polio … it inflames the brain stem, leading to paralysis and muscular waste.” Serkis tells and shows Dury’s origin story here and throughout in the equally elegant and inimical way the Sweet Gene Vincent-adoring timeless punk carried himself, one part Teddy Boy scamp and two parts “love me and leave me” scum-bag. “It was a monstrous epidemic,” Serkis narrates of the period in which the disease decimated the post-WW ll UK, but also created the charmingly caustic creature named Ian Robins Dury, who may have inspired violence in others with his baiting and mocking and vicious compulsion to perform (often viciously), but whose spirit transcended that of a monster.
Directed with fetching ambience and keen attention to period detail by Mat Whitecross, we see Dury as he began in a period in rock and roll in which things were always in danger of becoming boring. As the post-psychedelic rock music scene got more successful and original heroes like his beloved Vincent and Eddie Cochran remained “torn and twisted” in the car crash of collective memory. Music, art, fashion — these were his playgrounds, and Fez hats, weird beards, aviator shades, rockabilly pompadours, and even the occasional Nazi fetish in garb would come and go with he and the musicians he played with. As an early group of his tears apart a grimy club, the skinhead bartender says, “I’m an Emerson, Lake & Palmer man myself.” In the backstage, a Betty Davis punk funk girl hits on him, her only requirement for her company that he be “polite” to her. (He fails at that many times through “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll,” and to the woman described having his son in the opening sentence to this review.) When she asks about his usually present shades, he says, “They’re for your protection.” He explains that he grew up with his mom and two sisters, and that “I liked women so much I used to think I was a repressed homosexual.”
The bartender at the club his band just trashed then yells at him, “You can’t sing, you’re past it, and you look like a potato Jesus!” but quickly adds, “No offense.” Dury responds, “None taken, you fat-ankled fucker.” An expected eruption of violence ensues.
“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog,” Dury says, regarding his withered leg and the fact he never allowed it to keep him from taking the piss out of anyone. We see his belligerent way of life unfold through multiple time lines and numerable plot twists, and if it all smells a bit formulaic to the self-destructive rock star archetype, you may not be inhaling the intended Stoicism.
In that same backstage he meets his romantic savior, he also meets his creative doppleganger, the freshly-scrubbed soul-loving Chaz Jankel, who along with the newly formed Blockheads helps Dury create his most inspired and attention-given works, such as their debut “New Boots & Panties!!” and “Do It Yourself,” among others. In the “Catshit Mansions” where Dury lives and works on songs in the early 70s he tells Baxter about the fateful day that Sweet Gene handed his guitar over to Marc Bolan before getting in a cab with Cochran, the fated taxi that would mangle the former (in a way not unlike himself, sharing chronic pain through their lives), and killing the latter. Bolan marries Pink Floyd’s management secretary, who signs Dury and his band to the newly formed Stiff Records (which had the best corporate motto of all time: “If It Ain’t Stiff It Ain’t Worth A Fuck”). Some of this could be bollocks, as the Dury story is a hall of mirrors of video nasties and hallucinogenic testimonies. These images are wonderfully reflected by the songs Dury recorded and performed in mischief, such as “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” and “What A Waste.” No other performer from the ’77 Brit punk era could combine a jazzy lassitude, music hall catchiness, and a gentle acceptance of depravity so well.
“Never step into a dead man’s shoes,” Dury further tells his son, “that means you do it for yourself. Being an underdog with nothing to lose is a good start.” Dury may have “earned his own respect” as Serkis extrapolates during the film, and in real life he had comrades like visual artist Barney Bubbles (who is responsible for a lot of the graphics you associate with Stiff’s excellent album cover, flyer, and poster aesthetics) and the rest of the Stiff roster to play vaudevillian with: Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Wreckless Eric, and others. Besides a somewhat pummeling amount of melodrama involving Dury’s (absent) father, and the grotesque head of his orphanage, and all the lover’s spats, it’s this missing milieu not included in the film’s narration that would have helped make “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” an essential part of the rock film canon.
But even within the compressed controversy of the battered man who wrote “Spasticus Autisticus” to either honor or torment (probably both) the English government’s patronizing “International Year of Disabled Persons,” you’re on the receiving end of a really good story here, as Serkis introduces the movie’s title track with the delightful assertion: “This is for all the uglies, for all the outsiders, for all the freaks — slaving away in their shit shoes and their shit shirts, trying to fit in.” He smiles maniacally but graciously at his audience. “Isn’t it a pity?”