Ian Dury: je t’adore, ich liebe dich
Sex & Drugs & Rock’n’Roll is a fantastic evocation of Seventies Britain and the funny, aggressive world of an unlikely pop star.
A biopic of Ian Dury, the volatile, polio-suffering, lyrical wordsmith, always promised to be rich in drama and incident. Road To Guantanamo director Mat Whitecross doesn’t disappoint with Sex & Drugs & Rock’n’Roll.
Refusing to sanitise and scrub up one of Britain’s least likeliest, but most memorable, pop stars, this is a vivid, scattershot and unflinching portrait of a man whose disability left him bitter, brittle and rather brilliant too.
Even in late 1970s Britain, where being the local weirdo was de rigueur, Dury was out there on his own: short, crippled with what appeared to be five different haircuts going on at the same time and all of them screamed ‘nutter’. And then there was Dury’s hunched backstage manner and rich cockney delivery, which suggested debauched lust and menace. Indeed, Dury’s rhyming couplets conjured up images of furtive sex in musty old cars, Essex blowhards on the make and the Reader’s Wives section in old porn mags. Even the sound of The Blockheads – queasy, bubbling pub-funk and freakish music hall – only added to the aura of ‘not quite rightness’. Of course, all this was shot through with inviting gallows humour and sympathetic humanity to the three-dimensional characters Dury lovingly conjured up.
Although the focus in Sex & Drugs & Rock’n’Roll is on The Blockheads’ commercial peak, around the album New Boots and Panties!! and the number-one single, ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ in 1978, Whitecross doesn’t bother charting a conventional biographical time-line. Instead, Dury’s life is charted through the complex, but undeniably loving, relationships with his wife Betty (Olivia Williams) and then teenage tearaway girlfriend Denise (Naomie Harris). The film also dwells on Dury’s relationship with his saucer-eyed son Baxter (brilliantly played by Bill Milner) and the sometimes tiring realities of having an erratic, pop-star drunk for a dad. In turn, Dury’s deeply sentimental relationship with his father is explored, while half-snatched memories of Dury’s childhood, in particular in hospital after becoming infected with polio, lend the film a woozy glow, without descending into stylistic clichés. Whitecross injects some surprising visual detours along the way that keep us guessing throughout.
Central to the film’s appeal, of course, is Andy Serkis, who captures both Dury’s boiling rage and rolling tongue twisters with uncanny accuracy. It’s also finally great to see a film about Seventies Britain that genuinely captures all that decade’s edge and aggression. An early scene where Dury’s former band, Kilburn & the High Roads, get literally booted-off stage by an irate audience is a reminder of just how violent an average gig could get in the power-cut era.
Alongside this, Sex & Drugs & Rock’n’Roll evokes the less commented upon aspects of 1970s life: the importance of books, art and music as a way of making statements on the frustrating world around you. Dury and many of his ilk may have been obnoxious irritants, but they were always mindful to respect and learn from great works of art. Dury’s stern lecture to Baxter on the importance of education, particularly history and the glories of the English language is something today’s education ministers should take on board. There’s a great scene where Baxter says he is being bullied by school toughs for being ‘posh’. ‘We’re not posh’, says Dury, ‘we’re arts and crafts’.
That rich seam of autodidactism was one of the reasons why The Blockheads were the most fantastically accomplished live band in the country. Nobody complained that learning an instrument was ‘irrelevant’ to their immediate ‘experiences’. Instead, the world of art was used to transcend the limitations of ordinary backgrounds and a country falling rapidly falling apart.
Sex & Drugs & Rock’n’Roll superbly captures the turmoil, but also the possibilities, in British society as the post-war consensus imploded. As a depiction of the fascinating era before Britain became safe and sanitized, and pop stars came in the form of James Blunt, this simply can’t be beat.
Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.
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