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June 03, 2010

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll


Mat Whitecross - 2010
Tribeca Films 35mm film

If there was such a thing as an Academy Award for best title sequence, this winner might well be Peter Blake for Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. Blake, best known for the album sleeve cover for The Beatles' "Sergeant Pepper", has a peppery mix of images and colors kicking off the film. That Blake did the titles for the film was based in large part because he was Ian Dury's art teacher in the mid Sixties.

It is also appropriate that Blake did the titles, as the film by Mat Whitecross is something of a collage. There is a mix of styles, and narrative threads, with spoken word performance weaving in and out with flashbacks, music performance, and straight forward film biography. One could consider the film to be an assemblage of music video styles that comprise the length, if not the general cohesiveness, of a feature length film.


There is a moment when Dury brings up the adage about not letting the truth get in the way of a good story. Even a cursory look at Ian Dury's life is enough to hint that many liberties are taken. The film is hardly hagiography either. If one is looking for something resembling a factual account of Dury's life and music, look elsewhere. And if one is only vaguely familiar with Dury, maybe having heard a couple of his singles, or not familiar with Dury at all, this film might prove frustrating. There is a vagueness about the chronology of events, as well as uncertainty about who some of the people are, as well as their relationship with Dury. Even when the film covers some of the facts, such as Dury's contracting polio at age seven, there is no mention that their was a polio epidemic in Britain in 1949. There is no sense that Dury's early band, Kilburn and the High Roads, was critically respected, if not commercially successful. A little research indicates that the pre-teen who poses in front of a shop window with Dury in the movie was actually a four years old seen on the photo cover for the album "New Boots and Panties". Accuracy is not the reason to see Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.

Instead look for a series of remarkable images and verbal jousting. The story, as such, is about a musician who finds success, well into his 30s, with his mix of chugga-chugga rock, English musical hall, and a smattering of free jazz. Off stage, Dury's life is caught between Betty, the wife he can't live with, or without, and Denise, his live-in muse. Dury also finds himself trying to make amends to his son, Baxter, haunted by the memory of his own absentee father. A young man named Chaz Jankel proves to be offer a successful musical partnership. Dury is funny and charming, when his relationships with friends, family, band members and himself are not subject to his volatility.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the best scene in the film is the one plainly shot, with no effects of any kind. Dury pays a visit to the boarding school for disabled children that he was sent to as a youth. The intervening years have indicated that the philosophy of the school is more sympathetic than it was in the Fifties, with its emphasis on conformity and pulling oneself up by one's own bootstraps. Some of the children Dury meets are students at Hereward College. Dury is introduced as a former student who has come to talk about being a professional musician. The children each have a a rudimentary drum kit or some form of percussion instrument. In teaching the basic elements of rhythm, Dury encourages the kids to PLAY LOUDER.

Some of the biggest grooves in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll are the lines in the face of Andy Serkis. Nominated for several acting awards for this film, Serkis has the opportunity to show to greater advantage his capabilities undisguised by CGI as in the Lord of the Ring series. Serkis may well have been nominated for his voice impersonation, singing with the most current version of The Blockheads, Dury's backup band. As Denise, Naomie Harris has never looked more beautiful than she does in this film, making me hope that she can get bigger and better roles. Director Mat Whitecross has previously worked in different capacities with Michael Winterbottom, including 9 Songs and The Shock Doctrine. There were times when I wished even a fictional version of Tony Wilson from Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People would put some of the events of the film version of Ian Dury in some sort of context.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at June 3, 2010 12:19 AM


I want to see it!

Posted by: mumu at June 8, 2010 08:15 AM