I confess that Ian Dury and the Blockheads were one of those early punk bands I never quite understood the appeal of. (But, then, as someone who grew up on the hardcore of Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys, the Ramones always seemed a bit slowpoke to my ears as well.) So perhaps Mat Whitecross, director of the Dury biopic sex & drugs & rock & roll, was driven by that not-unfounded fear that a rocker lacking the name recognition of Johnny or Sid or Ian Curtis would be a hard sell even to punk aficionados. (Sure, Madness for one owes its carnival sound and style to Dury, but he's still relatively unknown at least on these shores.) How else to explain a film so MTV-slick it's practically anti-punk rock? Not only does sex & drugs & rock & roll not have any bollocks, it's like the nerd of the class desperately trying to get the cool kids to like him.
Dury, like that other Ian (who suffered from epilepsy), was a man with a disability, struck with polio at the age of seven. Unlike Curtis, who hanged himself on the eve of Joy Division's American tour, Dury died of cancer in his late 50s, a ripe old age for rockers. In between, he married, had kids, and tried and often failed to balance family life with his unquenchable desire for fame. Sound familiar? The problem with Whitecross's film is that Dury's tale follows a fairly conventional rise-and-fall redemption arc. The only thing that separated the man from his fellow '70s rebels was his leg brace, which is not enough to hang a film on, though writer Paul Viragh certainly tries with a cringe-worthy script chockfull of clichés.
The fights with band members, the groupie who becomes a girlfriend, the plate-throwing spat with the wife—we've seen this all before. (Okay, so perhaps the irate girlfriend tossing the leg brace into the tree is something new.) And Whitecross only heightens the screenplay's mediocrity with his hyperkinetic filmmaking. It's as if the director believes that if he visually moves the story fast enough we won't notice its lack of substance. From the film's arresting opening with its Flying Circus knockoff animation, to the heavy-handed editing (such as cutting between a gig and son Baxter's birthday party that Dury's missing, or moving ADD-style between Baxter acting tough in the mirror to his facing some bullies), to the off-kilter camera angles, Whitecross seems to be taking every artsy wrong turn in the biopic book.
Which makes the only right turn—a stellar cast that includes Andy Serkis as Dury, Naomie Harris as the girlfriend, Olivia Williams as the long suffering wife, and even Toby Jones and Ray Winstone in supporting roles—bring to mind the Blockheads's hit "What a Waste." As Dury's past is delivered via unimaginative dream sequences and flashbacks to being bullied and enduring the cruel headmaster at a school for the disabled, you almost feel sorry for Serkis having to overcome such acting obstacles. (And I haven't even mentioned the jam session shot underwater.) "There's no cure for polio—just like love," Dury even offers with a straight face as he intermittently narrates his life from a darkened stage.
It's shocking to think that Whitecross co-directed The Road to Guantanamo with Michael Winterbottom, whose 24 Hour Party People perfectly encapsulated the Manchester music scene. Whitecross is so focused on telling Dury's little tale that he misses the larger context in which Ian Dury and the Blockheads existed. In lieu of including encounters with Elvis Costello and the Attractions or the other bands from the Live Stiffs Tour, there's a drugged-out Dury and bandmates watching Spartacus in Hollywood-style seclusion, having gone from rags to riches in the blink of an eye. (This so that the "I'm Spartacus!" revolt can later be staged in flashback with Dury as a boy in the cafeteria of his school of hard knocks, all to explain a song called "Spasticus Autisticus" that Dury wrote in protest of the International Year of Disabled Persons in 1981, when he was way past his prime!) As Dury says at the end, "And the moral of the story is don't go looking for morals where there are none." Perhaps for the filmmakers a better lesson would have been: Don't go looking for a story where there is none.
sex & drugs & rock & roll will play on April 24, 26, 28, and 29 as part of this year's Tribeca Film Festival. For more information click here.