Thursday, July 18, 2013

Rock on Film Part 15: Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll: Looks juss like 'im!

What do you want in a rock biopic? If not the facts then an exaggeration of them that points toward whatever it is this life might teach us all wrapped up in enough visual flare to keep us grounded in the whizzbang world of pop. Ok, maybe not Control but a movie about agitator and cheeky wordsmith Ian Dury? Yes. So we start just like that. A dusty empty theatre. A figure with a walking stick struggling through the curtain takes a stage that is suddenly filled with musicians playing before a loudly vocal full house. The staggering figure is at the mic set inside a jaunty Cockney knees up vamp. His face is hidden by his bowler hat but then he lifts it and my jaw drops. Holy eel pies if he darn't look just like 'im.

Andy Serkis, the shape changer who was Gollum and Ceasar the chimp now gives us the dark pearly king of the late 70s UK music scene. With his baby-eyed block head and withered limbs Dury's roughneck wit neither apologised for nor confronted with his disability. His entire career was a clear fuck you lot let's party that preceded punk and outlived post punk and all the frail simper of the synth-mincing 80s. When I was at school I'd do the entirety of Hit Me Wih Your Rhythm Stick and Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll to the delight and resentment of all in earshot. It's nice to be a lun-a-tic. Part music hall jokester, part William Hogarth and all himself, Dury burst from a childhood of physical constraint and institutional cruelty with such a force that it was decades before he took a breath.

Well, that's the public story. And it's a good one. This ought to give us something of the clown without the greasepaint. Well, it does. Starting with a Brechtian frame of the live show that wasn't we fall into another level which describes Dury as a day to day husband, father, career entertainer and all around impulsive narcissist. So, we're in good hands, aren't we? After the impossible theatre show (during the first song we are pointed to the suddenly appearing diving platform with the young Ian on the plank among other cinematically possible constructions) we get a big lolly shop of animated backgrounds, cheery band forming and changing montages and a lot of scenes of Dury as a father trying and often failing to bring up his son and keep his marriage, however fractured, from a formal divorce. Stir in a lot of scenes from key points in his career and troubled childhood torn between a loving father and sadistic institutional carer and that's the movie.

Isn't that enough? It should be but this is a case of parts not summing up. The frame of the live show seems to fall into neglect and a series of Dury being difficult scenes gets repetitive. The hey-guys-I've-got-it scenes of famous song inspirations seem self-consciously underplayed to the point where they become flavourless and routine. A thread of his son coping with bullying and witnessing the rockstar lifestyle have promise but are lost among a lot of other threads that feel much the same. Ultimately this ends up with a weave with less of a patten than a transition from clear lines to the purple mud sludge that all plasticine sets become after about an hour's playing. This despite the great clarity resulting from the establishment of each major thread: disability, marriage, career, egos etc. Nothing delivers. It can't: there are too many delivery boys vying for attention.

Performances are stellar, moments are impressive, the era is effectively evoked and all I can think at the rolling of the credits is hmmmm. I put 24 Hour Party People in after watching this and skipped to Andy Serkis playing producer Martin Hannet. Again I learned a more about Hannet in a relatively small onscreen role tghan I did about Dury in his biopic. No, I have to go one better here: I will never be able to forget the vision of the coolly beautiful Gina S. at a North Ward party in 1979 dancing simply but mesmerisingly, fixing her eyes on the guy she was with and mouthing the words to the song joggling from the speakers: "Wake up and make love with me. Wake up and make love ..." That still tells me more about Ian Dury's appeal than anything in this beautiful broken jigsaw puzzle of a film. What a bloody pity.

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