Sunday, 31 January 2010

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

Broadly speaking, musical biopics these days can go one of two routes. One is the sickeningly reverential approach that clinched Jamie Foxx an Oscar for playing Ray Charles. The other is the equivalent to a bad drugs trip a la Todd Haynes' I'm Not There; this, presumably, is the most appropriate tack.

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll aims for the latter and mostly succeeds; after all, Ian Dury was an unpredictable man. We need a sense of danger and chaos. And if Mat Whitecross' portrayal can't quite slip the corny narrative slant from depravation to redemption, some admirably bold sensitivity saves the day, not to mention a typically electric performance from Andy Serkis, one of our finest actors.

The problem is that Dury was such a parody of himself, Serkis' efforts risk coming across as a shrill imitation. Following the vocalist's tribulations from early days being booted out of seedy pubs, through his adulterous homelife to his emergence as Blockheads frontman with excess psychological baggage, there is an attempt to unravel the complex musician.

Of course, such efforts are hamstrung by convention, meaning the Bronson-style theatrical address to Dury's salivating audience and the chripy cartoon intermissions taking him from one year to another feel clunky. Much more effective, in terms of performance and ambition, are the personal scenes, where Serkis, young Bill Milner as his son Baxter, Olivia Williams as estranged wife Betty and Naomie Harris as bed-buddy Denise, create a palpable sense of the emotional turmoil left in Dury's wake.

After all, what is there to explain about imitation and stage presence? For all the poignant flashback sequences, hinting at motivation and pain, it amounts to nothing. The bit where he first hits upon the title phrase, though? That's a tinglingly enjoyable scene, a sense of history-in-the making we can all identify with.

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