In the early 1970's, a misunderstood musician wasn't getting much respect, but lived the rock 'n roll lifestyle nonetheless, a wife and kids in the 'burbs, a teenaged mistress in his London flat. His stage presence was a little bit cabaret, and, because of polio suffered in childhood, a little bit Richard III. Ian Dury (Andy Serkis, "Longford") finally became well know with his single, which featured future Blockheads co-writer and guitarist Chas Jankel (Tom Hughes) and saxophonist Davey Payne, "sex & drugs & rock & roll."
Documentary director Mat Whitecross ("The Shock Doctrine") made his fiction feature debut with this biopic that suffers from artistic schizophrenia. Whitecross begins the film with a lot of animated collages which look cheesy and do little to propel his story, but once he settles down into a more traditionally linear film, it gets a whole lot better. Serkis, mostly known for his performance capture roles like "Lord of the Rings'" Gollum and "Rise of the Planet of the Apes'" Caesar, is outstanding as Dury in a role that requires both verbal dexterity and physical challenges. It's a major performance in a minor film.
The film starts off with an early club gig that gets Dury, whose talent is clearly evident in a rough form, thrown out. Band member Russell Hardy (Mackenzie Crook, BBC's 'The Office,' the first 3 Pirates) quits while teenaged audience member Denise Roudette (Naomie Harris, "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End") signs on. We see Dury jam with his band while his wife gives birth to their first child upstairs, alone (later he writes Jemima the type of letter that would appeal greatly to a child, more like an entertaining uncle). Dury's relationship with his second, Baxter (Bill Milner, "Son of Rambow"), is more complex, his influence stronger (the photo shoot for the cover of the New Boots and Panties album, which Baxter steals imitating his dad, is one of the film's best).
Whitecross uses flashback to fill in Dury's early life, his contact with the polio virus in a swimming pool during the epidemic of 1949, the 'tough love' (and perhaps more, intimated by a cut from 'Spartacus' to a slap from school master Hargreaves (Toby Jones)) at an institutional school for its victims, the relationship with his absentee father (Ray Winstone, "44 Inch Chest") which mirrors his own parenting. The music is alternately woven into the story ('Wake Up and Make Love To Me' is a 'Catshit Mansions' montage with Dury and Denise in bed), treated as a music video (an terrific underwater sequence for 'Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick') or shown as a live performance ('Reasons To Be Cheerful, Part 3').
Refreshingly, this isn't a rise and fall story. Sure, Dury caught some major backlash with his retort to 1981's International Year of Disabled Persons in 'Spasticus Autisticus,' but Dury is still defiantly expressing his view ('It wasn't written for you Walkie Talkies!') with his unique word-play. The special f/x used to reveal Dury's shriveled limbs are astounding for an independent film and Serkis compliments them with his movements. He also sells Dury's matter-of-factness about his disability. Dury's heavy emotional moments are saved for the death of his father (strangely reminiscent of the death of the elderly butler in "Remains of the Day") and his wife's (Olivia Williams, "The Ghost Writer") decision to officially be with another man. The film is less clear about some other relationships. Davey is introduced with a 'Speak of Satan and he shall appear' and we wait to see what this means. Much later, at Dury's 80's country estate, the man falls asleep poolside with unattended pills which are taken by the curious Baxter, but except for dad's nursing the kid through his bad trip, there seems to be little aftermath.
Serkis is the reason to see this film - he's a powerhouse in it, singing both live and on cuts recorded with members of the Blockheads. Whitecross's attempts to use collage to put over Dury as an artist aren't contextualized enough and just don't work, but with his clever casting, he still has captured what made the man special (Dury died in 2000 of cancer).
Robin did not see this film.
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