Most musical bio-pics make a substantial effort to fashion a dramatic passport of sorts, allowing an opening for the viewer to understand the artist outside of the fame, thus creating a human depiction that doesn’t require extensive discography knowledge to wholly appreciate. “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” is the rare musical portrait that actually demands fandom to fully value the feature, otherwise the average viewer will most likely be lost at sea, wondering why 105 minutes were devoted to such a disagreeable man. I’m sure there was more to the astounding life of Ian Dury, but this picture doesn’t submit the nuances, only the juiciest clichés imaginable.
Contracting polio at the age of seven, Ian Dury (Andy Serkis) was forced to carry on through life without the use of his left leg. Refusing to allow the disability to slow him down, Dury took on the world of music, becoming a frontman for several bands of dubious fame before he settled in with the Blockheads, finding the success he always craved through peculiar funky songs and a wildly theatrical stage presence. As his star rose during the British new wave years, Dury was also confronted by the family he left behind, juggling his estranged wife (Olivia Williams) with a loyal lover (Naomie Harris), while his impressionable son Baxter (Bill Milner) surveyed the destructive rock excess. Through determination and a wild-eyed charisma, Dury achieved fame, fighting the labels and limitations placed upon him with a ferocious, snapping spirit.
I’m not asking for Ian Dury to be magically transformed into a Mister Rogers saint for his big screen story, but there’s little in the way of genuine character to “Sex & Drugs” that keeps the experience enlightening or aware. Instead, director Mat Whitecross treats the viewer to yet another sweaty plunge into the extremes and emotional poison of music business stardom, with Dury burning through a tired routine of chemical excess, romantic hesitancy, and severe daddy issues.
“Sex & Drugs” is nailed down by its moldy familiarity, brought to a standstill by a screenplay (by Paul Viragh) that’s too lethargic to discover the spark of Dury’s life or the momentum to his music. Instead, Whitecross endeavors to power the film through visual trickery, stirring up Dury’s imagination and spittle-drenched gift for spectacle to portray his splintered existence. The film conjures a circus atmosphere to convey Dury’s attitude and unique stage dominance, slipping into the man’s abyssal subconscious to jumble his life story -- a flashback framework that reflects his frantic lifestyle and burning brain.
The visual gymnastics employed to bring the feature to life register as superfluous, failing to make the music feel legendary or the film anything more than a low-budget director reel to help Whitecross achieve bigger and better gigs. If there was a soul to the work of Ian Dury and the Blockheads, or perhaps some type of satiric bull’s-eye, the movie rarely presents the achievement in the blinding Technicolor it deserves. Instead, the film feels self-consciously chaotic and dramatically redundant, with all the piercing, soulful insight of a music video.
“Sex & Drugs” finds a more encouraging dysfunction at home, where Dury faced several bitter relationships and engaged in wrongheaded, halfhearted parenting. The idea of Dury as a rabid spirit wolfing down the life he was never meant to enjoy is communicated clearly enough, but the pinched aesthetic of the film, along with the crude screenwriting, doesn’t shape Dury as a man, only a limping, sweaty outline of clichés. “Sex & Drugs” has the manpower in Serkis and his confidently feral performance to digest Dury’s life story. Instead, the film paints by numbers, compacting a volatile life into a glorified television movie.
The final act of the film finally reaches a fertile place of meditation, finding Dury ready to confront his body issues and life lived outside of responsibility. It comes late in the game, but “Sex & Drugs” achieves a gripping tone of discomfort, even staging a marvelous scene that finds Dury meeting with a group of physically challenged kids, forcing him to communicate through the power of rhythm. Only here does Dury’s anxiety achieve complexity, his life find a center, and his music explores unity over showmanship. A few more moments like it, and “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” might’ve drilled into a profound sense of Dury, instead of the one-dimensional conduit of habitual disrespect the picture makes him out to be.