Ian Dury (Andy Serkis) was a musician who emerged from the pub rock scene in Britain with his band Kilburn and the High Roads, but he would be better known as the leader of his next band, The Blockheads. A defining moment in his early life was when he swam in an outdoor pool where he contracted polio, a disease which harms the body's mobility and was reaching epidemic proportions when Ian was a child. This led to his limbs being crippled, and him taken to live in a special boarding school which he detested, especially the head tutor, the tyrannical Mr Hargreaves (Toby Jones) which bred in him a rebellious spirit. But by the time he was making progress as an entertainer, his marriage to Betty (Olivia Williams) was on the rocks...
Named after one of his songs, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll was yet another biopic, and yet another music-related biopic at that, from an era where it seemed nothing in the recent past had happened unless there was a fictionalised film or television series about it. In these cases, casting was the key, for if you didn't have a performer who enjoyed the same charisma as their subject, or at least a reason to keep the viewer interested, then it could well scupper any hopes for an artistic success. The problem with this was that no matter what the lead actor or actress was doing in the role, if the subject was famous enough, comparisons were always going to be made, so Serkis had his work cut out for such a vivid original as Dury.
Fortunately, he was never an actor who did things by halves, and his commitment to his rendering of the singer was never in doubt; it helped that this was no hagiography, and was more of a warts and all biopic which he could get his teeth into. Although not exactly identical in looks or voice, Serkis with his physical skill had obviously studied archive footage of Dury and crafted something akin to a very decent impersonation, though there was a trouble that this prevented the personality becoming something other than a caricature, and there were scenes here which resembled some kind of grotesque sketch show, with its lapses into fantasia from the director Mat Whitecross. This kept things visually interesting, but also an feeling that he was a frustrated pop video creator.
It was all very well including Peter Blake animations to brighten up the screen, or having Ian and the Blockheads perform underwater in the swimming pool, a recurring motif to remind us what Dury had survived, but ultimately this window dressing was a distraction, and more indicative of the decade the film was made than the period it was supposed to be about. It was really the music that was important, for without that Dury would come across like an argumentative, drunken lout, his famed verbal wit not quite brought out by the script which relies on more of the music hall influence, dropping Dury's love of slang and colourful turn of phrase into conversations in sounding like a comedian trying out his routines and catchphrases. Luckily, Serkis inhabited the part fiercely and papered over such uncertain cracks.
Everyone else was rather in his shadow, as Williams did her accustomed sensible act and Naomie Harris as Ian's girlfriend Denise was landed with a frustratingly colourless character, aside from the occasional row. It could be that the protagonist was not so much Dury but his son Baxter (Bill Milner), from whose perspective we see Dury's foibles and flaws, and leads him to be a disruptive influence the film quite enjoys when it means polite middle class people can be offended by both his and his father's behaviour, a regrettable cliché since Dury's music appealed across a wide range of British society: it wasn't simply salt of the earth Londoners who put Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick to number one in the pop charts in the late seventies. Indeed, the tunes get a surprisingly short shrift as the film prefers to worry over Ian's self-destructive nature, and the menacing renditions of his classic songs are lacking in comparison to the recordings, in spite of songwriter Chas Jankel's input behind the scenes. Although it packed a lot in, this was weirdly unilluminating; but Serkis saved it.