WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
As we join this biopic of the legendary British punk entertainer Ian Dury (Andy Serkis), he’s rehearsing downstairs at home, with his first band, Kilburn &
The High Roads, while his wife Betty (Olivia Williams) is giving birth to their son Baxter upstairs.
With flashbacks to his brutal institutionalised childhood – including the bout of polio that would shape his life, both physically and emotionally – this film recounts Dury’s failed marriage to Betty, his concurrent relationship with a young black woman, Denise (Naomie Harris), his rise to fame with his Blockheads, his refusal to conform with society and his loving, but controversial relationship with a son who’s initially as troubled as he was as a young boy.
WHAT’S IT LIKE?
It’s funny that this should come out in the same week as another film with a father-son relationship at its heart. But whereas in The Road, Viggo Mortensen’s sole raison d’etre is to protect his son, if this film is to be believed, protecting Baxter – in the more traditional sense, at least – could not have been further from Ian Dury’s mind.
Yet while Baxter’s welfare is rather left in the hands of drug-dealing minders and he’s exposed to no end of inappropriate adult behaviour, it appears that his father’s love and respect for him was every bit as strong as Viggo Mortensen’s for his son in The Road. Dury’s relationship with Baxter as a young teenager – ably played by the unequalled boy star de nos jours, Bill Milner – are among the few times the film actually generates any kind of an emotional response.
Equally contradictory but lacking in such emotions are the relationships he has with the key women in his life – the way that he happily left his wife for Denise, yet he couldn’t face the idea of divorcing Betty when she met someone new.
This film paints Ian Dury as a fabulously colourful and complex character – by turns selfish and needy – unafraid to be himself – his physical disability pushing him to fight even more for his position in society, as a wildly independent musical giant of his time, cocking a snook even at those authorities who just want to help him and benefit from his support.
After a recent powerful turn playing the Moors Murderer Ian Brady, Andy Serkis appears to be trying to give Michael Sheen a run for his money in the playing real people stakes – and it is his performance as Ian Dury that provides the only essential reason to see this film.
Interesting visuals – such as the childlike animated sequences – add to the cinematic effect of the film, but if anything, they detract from director Mat Whitecross’s story-telling.
For people unfamiliar with Ian Dury, this film doesn’t give you a sense of just how influential he was as a musician, lyricist and general entertainer, his relationships feel a little messy and lacking in direction and there are inconsistencies in his behaviour – but perhaps that’s just a necessary consequence of being a celebrity?
The film works best when it’s recreating the memorable musical moments – like full-length re-enactments of all his biggest hits, from Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick (including an illuminating explanation of what the lyrics mean!) to Spasticus Autisticus, by way of the eponymous Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.
Serkis is so convincing, you could almost be watching a Top Of The Pops 2 special on Ian Dury and the Blockheads. He’s not just impressive when he’s singing – well, “singing” – his speech and general demeanour make you feel you could be watching a documentary.
But it begs the question of whether that’s what film should be about. It’s not an episode of Stars In Their Eyes. It’s not a documentary. It’s meant to be a narrative study of a period of the life of one of Britain’s most influential musical entertainers – and in that sense, it’s not as successful.
It starts at a perfectly acceptable point of his life – the birth of his son – necessarily visits his disturbing past – but picks and odd moment to wind down.
And while Serkis’s powerhouse performance breathes life into Dury, he can’t really bring the film itself to life. You don’t feel that you really get to know what makes Ian Dury tick – and you certainly don’t get to like him. And surely those are two of the key goals for a biopic.