Tuesday, January 20, 2015

"It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog"

"I didn’t want it to be a hagiography, or a hatchet piece", director Mat Whitecross told the Telegraph in 2009. Having finally seen Whitecross' Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, I can confirm he achieved his aims. In its depiction of Ian Dury, the film is neither too generous nor too scathing. It doesn't shirk from showing him to be a maddening, callous, manipulative individual, but neither can his magnetic personality, righteous anger, crude wit and fierce determination be denied.

Dury's anger and determination stemmed from the crippling effects of polio, contracted in childhood, and the way he was subsequently stigmatised, bullied and institutionalised. Asked to record a charity song to mark the fact that 1981 had been decreed the Year Of The Disabled, Dury and songwriter Chaz Jankel delivered the bilious and witheringly sarcastic riposte 'Spasticus Autisticus'. Its performance marks the high point of the film, but at the time it was deemed offensive and promptly banned by the BBC. One wonders what Dury would have made of it cropping up in the opening ceremony for the London Paralympics, 12 years after his death.

The Blockheads have always struck me as an odd entity - "Chas 'n' Dave meets funk rock", as I put it when I caught them live (fronted by Phil Jupitus) at Summer Sundae in 2006. I can't say I love anything they did, but Whitecross does an excellent job of conveying the manic on-stage energy of Dury and the band behind him. As might be expected of a music biopic, especially one rejoicing in such a title, there is also plenty of sex and drugs, tempered somewhat by the focus on the irreversibly damaging influence Dury's personality and lifestyle has on those around him, including his wife, his lover and particularly his impressionable son. Baxter is literally born into the chaos, entering the world in the film's opening sequence as Dury and his first band Kilburn & The High Roads practise noisily downstairs, and grows up more under his father's spell than anyone.

Whitecross should be applauded for the clever use of the theatrical monologue device, which sees Dury alone on stage as those behind and before him are concealed in shadow, as well as the restless cuts and use of legendary pop artist Peter Blake for the titles, but primarily for getting such a tremendous performance out of Andy Serkis. It's not long ago that I praised Toby Jones for his portrayal of an extraordinary larger-than-life character, and here - in a film in which Jones also appears - Serkis deserves similar credit for not so much playing Dury as actually being him.

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