Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is a fictional biography of one of the seminal punk rockers of the 1970s, Ian Dury. This film is very working-class British, which accounts for a great deal of its rascally charm. It is also loud, frenetic, and phantasmagorical, but that's a good thing because it perfectly reflects the wild, crazy, and sometimes violent world of the burgeoning punk rock scene. Director Mat Whitecross is always spot on, especially when he displays the bright colors, the blaring unrefined music, and the self-destructive bar fights in the crowded clubs. One scene, familiar to anyone who has ever been in a rock band, reveals that the musicians' "dressing rooms" were more often than not the grungy bathrooms. This authenticity provides a strong foundation for the rest of the film.
Andy Serkis, (Gollum in The Lord of the Rings) is terrific as Dury. His face bears the deep grooves wrought by the passions of the angry artist, the haunted rebel, the raunchy cabaret singer, the scrawny scrapper whose motto is "it's not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog." He hits all the right notes perfectly, except when he sings -- then he hits all the wrong notes perfectly. If you see the film, you'll know what I mean.
Ian Dury contracted the scourge of polio, what he called "the crippler," as a young boy pursuing his dream of becoming a great swimmer. Public pools in 1949 were giant Petri dishes for the ubiquitous nasty virus. Polio defined Dury's life. He was the cripple made fun of by other cripples at a school for children suffering from various disabilities. This constant taunting, exacerbated by the heartlessness of a cruel Dickensian headmaster, poured into Dury's psyche a potent cocktail of pain, humiliation, and rage that brewed itself into a contrarian attitude that could lead to nowhere better than punk rock. For Dury, playing music was like escaping from prison -- perhaps, in Jim Morrison's words, "a prison of your own devise."
But Dury is not a poser (his disdain for the Sex Pistols is evident in the film). He is the real deal. His art and his life are so tortuously intertwined that it is impossible to separate them clearly as we watch the film, and that is as it should be. The filmmakers impishly mix concert footage and frenetic animated sequences with scenes of what passes for domesticity in Dury's life.
He is a man who passionately loves the power of words: the ability they have to bring us out of ourselves, to help us transcend, if only for brief moments, our painful circumstances. For him, words delineate the fine line between simply existing and really living. And for words to be true, they must be tough, unyielding, and painfully accurate. As he says to an official of the Spastics Society who was instrumental in having the song "Spasticus Autisticus" banned from the radio for being too offensive, "I'm not Tiny Tim. People like me don't want sympathy. We want respect."
What this film is ultimately about, though, amid all the punkish fanfare, is the inexorable yet tenuous bond between fathers and sons. Ian's father tried to help his son cope with the misery of his condition, but he just didn't know how to do it. He tried to teach Ian how to box and told him things like, "Being the underdog with nothing to lose is the best place to start." Dad struck a resonant note there: those words proved to be ones for Ian to live by. As a father himself, Ian tries in an almost equally haphazard way to help his own son overcome the bullies in his life, his irrational fears, and the vagaries of a not-quite-totally-functional family. At one point, he quotes to his son the French artist Eugene Delacroix: "Inspiration is getting to our studies at 9 a.m." Strange advice indeed from a punk rocker!
In an early scene, set in the late 1960s, Ian and his band are rehearsing a raucous number at his house while his wife is giving birth to their son upstairs. She eventually comes down with the baby in her arms and says, "I have just given birth. Do you think you could keep the noise down?" Dury, cigarette in mouth, embraces his son, gives him back to Mom, and then continues to berate the drummer he has just fired. In a big way, this scene defines Dury's life. How does a man take the chip off his shoulder long enough to love a son? Why does he step away from the wife he professes to love to stumble into the arms of a girlfriend he also claims to love? And what is it about this damaged man that compels both women to put up with him?
I think the answer to that last question has to do with weakness, yet the kind of weakness that demands a balancing strength. Ian's girlfriend tells a young band member, as they watch Ian hobble away, that Ian's weakness "is so obvious he doesn't need to worry about it" (although I'm not sure that's altogether true) and that her weakness is loving him. That she sees loving him as a weakness is not a small revelation and indeed might be the pivotal point in the movie.
In another scene, this one intensely creative, Ian dives into a swimming pool, and all the members of his band are there, underwater, playing their instruments in a rousing version of his well-known tune, "Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick." Like the water in the pool, music encompasses him. It's as essential to him as his sense of family, yet as harrowing an appendage as the institutional leg brace he must wear to be able to walk.
Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is a multi-faceted film that is much more complex and rewarding than most films of its kind. The two father-son stories and the two love stories intertwine in a complicated dance of slashing sound and imagery that director Mat Whitecross handles deftly and energetically, with empathy and just the right dose of irony. At the very end of the film, Dury says to a concert hall full of admirers, "F*ck off. You're all fired. Go and be magnificent."