Sunday, 31 January 2010

Cinema: Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

Ian Dury was the bastard offspring of a three-way between Richard III, Max Wall and Edward Lear. His act was pure music hall with a musical backing that owed more to funk than punk and yet he was the clown prince of the punk movement, had the look and attitude before either were safety-pinned onto the various pub rock combos that followed in the wake of the Sex Pistols. They revered him and his original band, Kilburn and the High Roads, set the scene, along with the likes of Dr Feelgood, and were also a major influence on the London ska revival led by Madness.

At the risk of packing the Undead Poets' Society with lyricists and performers, however talented, Dury deserves induction because, he like John Cooper Clarke, was a funny man but had something of the night about him. More importantly, he had a dextrous and daring aptitude for rhyme and was demented in his disruption of syntax to get syllables to dance to his rhythm four-to-the-floor funk rather than garage band punk, giving his words far more space to work in than most lyricists of the movement.

In the guise of Andy Serkis, previously best known for his turns as Gollum and King Kong, the just-interred look is more apparent in the actor's whey-faced weaselyness than in the bucket-headed Dury but the impersonation goes much deeper than clock and clobber. Serkis inhabits his character physically such that the transformation in his voice seems to come from something more life-rupturing than mere manipulation of the vocal chords. Sure ,you get the charming loser and battling boozer who becomes a combination of Lear and his fool on stage, but if Dury had a tribute act - and some might say that the modern-day Blockheads with a revolving cast of celebrities in the lead role is just that - you'd expect and get nothing less. The key to the success of the film is unlocking the heart of the man on stage to see the shadow-plays staged there and how they informed the art and craft we are already familiar with through his archive of vinyl and celluloid.

Many biopics have no arc and no dynamic and rock biopics are generally those that struggle hardest to least effect. In part, that's because we are still too close to the practitioners of the now fading era of rock'n'roll to get perspective, to see the story in the pile of clippings and clips too easily amassed as research. Sight does not necessarily give insight. Dury was a student of Peter Blake at the RCA and taught at art colleges himself after graduation but didn't pursue that route, saying "I got good enough at art to realise I wasn't going to be very good." Not all film directors are able to undertake such self-criticism and the now usual route to the clapperboard of an apprenticeship commercials and pop videos is rarely the best preparation for the two hour treatment.

But also, as with our discussion of poets in the movies, a creative life is not necessarily the best source material for creativity, and in bad hands can just be an excuse for the sort of cut-and-paste treatment that all-too-often masquerades as rock biography or the thinly disguised adaptation of source materials that lazy dramatists claim as plays - they may have a willing audience and guarantee sales but don't merit serious attention beyond the fan base who'll fork out the ticket price for anything with the right name on the package. If I had the time and inclination, I'd digress into a few paragraphs denigrating the missed opportunities of past efforts and speculate on what future projects might best fit the movie format, but you can spare me that effort by doing the job yourself with a few mates down the pub.

In Dury's case, the writer Paul Viragh had more than most to work with. Central to the script is the son-of-the-father who becomes the father-to-the-son with all the complications of the paternal dynamic that tend to come with absence. Baxter Dury is now a musician himself, but in the film is portrayed as a boy old before his time who never grows up -  literally, as Bil Milner is asked to act out almost a decade of his young life without aging more than a few weeks. But the bass drum beat of this kit is the mother rather than father figure. Dury's own features little in the movie but was the one constant of his childhood, the upper-middle class daughter of a doctor and Celtic bohemian Betty who raised him as much in Cornwall and Essex and whose role in his life is replicated by both his wife and girlfriend who are expected to shift gears from carer through creative foil to lover on Ian's whim.

Not that any disabled kid in fifties Britain grew up spoilt. Dury's education in the Chailey Heritage Craft School and Hospital really was one of hard knocks and always getting back up for more. Returning to the institution in the eighties to mark the Year of the Disabled, Dury wanted to give the pupils some of his spirit of rebellion but by then they had less to rebel against and his cripple pride anthem 'Spasticus Autisticus' seemed to many derogatory rather than celebratory, too twisted to ever become the 'I am Spartacus' of the raspberry ripple kind. Dury took his dark and bitter anger into Grammar school where, smaller but older than his classmates, he took out his rage on any that got in his way, a habit he perpetuated as band leader where even working partnerships with talents such as Chaz Jankel were riven with more tensions than creativity itself demanded.

The movie ends a decade before Lord Upminster's early death, sparing us the worst of his alcoholism, the degradations of liver cancer, the decline in his artistic abilities and output, and the pirate and villain film roles he took on to keep the money coming in - Dury is the only actor I can name who made films with both Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, and he turned down the 'opportunity' to work with Andrew Lloyd Webber on the libretto to 'Cats', missing out on Richard Stilgoe's millions - all hinted at, but not overdone in the closing scenes of the movie. Its faults are mainly stylistic. There is more pop art frippery than is strictly necessary to deliver the story and the framing device of Dury's narration from a stage beyond the grave only fills the gaps the script should have covered integrally. But it seems unlikely that rock music will deliver us another Dury and 'Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll' does a good job of telling us why.

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