Friday, April 29, 2011

White Face, Black Shirt/White Socks, Black Shoes: Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (2010)

I was not a child of Woodstock; I was too young. Sure, I loved the music of The Beatles, The Byrds and The Who, and many others, but it didn't define me. Instead, the music of my formative years was the music from 1976 to 1984 that is known as New Wave – particularly from Britain and Ireland. New Wave encompassed a vast array of musical styles, including rock, post-punk, ska, reggae, jazz, music hall and others. Bands like Elvis Costello and the Attractions, The Clash, Nick Lowe, Joe Jackson, Dave Edmunds, Ultravox (pre-Midge Ure), Joy Division, The Cure, Wreckless Eric, The Specials, Madness, English Beat, The Stranglers, The Boomtown Rats, Graham Parker and the Rumour, and Ian Dury and the Blockheads, were some of the ones that captured my ears. The music of these bands was a response to the blotted excesses of the just-passed prog rock (think Emerson, Lake and Palmer; or Rick Wakeman), but it was also an answer to the thrash and bash of punk, personified in bands like the Sex Pistols and The Damned (The Clash were punks at first too, but quickly abandoned the style). Instead of bashing away and ranting at the world, à la the punks, the New Wave artists wrote short, punchy pop, rock or ska songs played with a modicum of skill. They were equally angry (Costello's “(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea” and The Clash's “London Calling” were signature songs of the movement), but the melody and musical skills were far more appealing to me than the scream of punk. Many of the performers I'd admired got their start on a rebellious label Stiff Records, whose motto was “If It Ain't Stiff, It Ain't Worth a Fuck.” And of these bands, the one I held closest to my heart was Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Songs like “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll,” “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick,” “Sweet Gene Vincent” and “Wake Up and Make Love With Me” still play 'in heavy rotation' in my listening universe.

Ian Dury and his son Baxter (pictured)
Dury sure legitimately embraced the anger that surrounded New Wave. At the age of nine, he contracted polio which made him, in his words, 'a crip' on his left side. His left arm was withered and he needed a brace on his left leg in order to walk. The disease left him angry and bitter throughout much of his life. His music was his outlet, his safety valve for his anger. He was also a tremendous lyricist. From “Sweet Gene Vincent”:

Blue Gene baby

Skinny white sailor, the chances were slender
The beauties were brief
Shall I mourn your decline with some thunderbird wine
and a black handkerchief?
I miss your sad Virginia whisper
I miss the voice that called my heart

I always loved Dury's gravelly, Cockney voice. It always put you directly inside the world he was singing about. But in terms of age, he was ten to twelve years older than most of the artists we identify with New Wave. And yet, nobody seemed to notice or care because there was no question he lived the life. Unfortunately, his influence was generally short-lived. In fact, his reputation is based around the first two albums, New Boots and Panties!! and Do It Yourself, plus a handful of singles, such as “Spasticus (Autisticus),” which was his 1981 attack on anybody who 'felt sorry' for anybody with an affliction such as his. Off and on, he continued to record albums alone and with his band until shortly before his death from cancer in 2000. Trying to sum up his life in a film would be difficult, so it is not altogether surprising that it took until 2010 before someone finally managed to do it.

Bill Milner as Baxter Dury, Andy Serkis as Ian Dury
Released recently on DVD (it never received a theatrical release in Canada – more on that shortly), Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, directed by Mat Whitecross and written by Paul Viragh, tries mightily to tell Dury's story in a way that would do justice to him and the New Wave movement. The key influence on the film – starring a great Andy Serkis (Gollum in The Lord of the Ring movies) as Dury – is ironically not really derived from the New Wave movement, but Bob Fosse's All That Jazz (1979). Appropriate, I guess, considering the year that Fosse's film came out. Using a fractured structure, and having Dury, in a way, 'narrate' the film from a concert stage as he performs, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll tries a little too hard to be hip and different. The fractured structure actually undercuts our understanding of Dury and the nature of his relationships with his wife, Betty (Olivia Williams); his mistress, Denise (the luminous Naomie Harris proving – as she did in the NT Live production of Frankenstein, reviewed here – she is one of the finest actresses working today); and his impressionable son, Baxter, nicely played by Bill Milner (Son of Rambow). Within the structure, Whitecross and Viragh also jam in flashbacks to Dury's childhood, particularly his Dickensian-inspired time in a home for the disabled, and his distant relationship with his now-dead father, played briefly by Ray Winstone. It is unfortunate that they made up much of this material and completely ignored his training as a painter prior to his career as a singer/songwriter. This fact alone would have added much need layers to the film.

They also shoot linking bits, often to a Dury or some other New Wave song, in a manner similar to some of the New Wave videos of the time. This is all fine and playful, but it really doesn't work. Whitecross says in a very short extra on the DVD that he wanted to make it this way in order to not have it be like a conventional biopic, but this has backfired. I completely agree that a conventional bio would have been the wrong approach, but by choosing to do it with so much attention-grabbing film-making technique achieves only one thing: it pushes you out of the film again and again.

Naomie Harris
That is a drag, because Serkis (who, quite credibly, does his own singing), Harris, Williams and Milner are all so good that the artificial construct that Whitecross has wrapped around their performances is really distracting. It is still worth seeing, though. Maybe it would have done better on the big screen, but I think I know why we never got to see this film in Canada in movie theatres: Ian Dury is virtually unknown today outside of the UK. If this picture had come out in 1985, as his career was already in decline but still visable, the fans who liked his work would have been intrigued to see a movie about him. Trying to make a film about an 'obscure' member of the New Wave movement in 2010 was too little, too late. Dury lives on however with people like me who always loved many of his songs. Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll was probably made for somebody like me. It's just too bad that the choices the filmmakers made undercut what they were trying to achieve. Too bad, as well, that Dury is not better known for the great songs he wrote.

Some tastes of Dury can be found below:

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (from 1977)

Sweet Gene Vincent (from 1980)

Spasticus (Autisticus) (from 1981)

UPDATE: On November 10, 2010, I wrote a review of Philip Kerr's fine new novel, Field Grey. At the time, it was only available from the UK. It has now been published in Canada by Putnam. It is a tremendous novel, especially if you've read the rest of his Bernie Gunther novels. Plus, an eighth Gunther novel, The Man With The Iron Heart (or it might be called Prague Fatale) is to be published in October 2011 in the UK from Quercus, with, I assume, a Canadian edition in April 2012. I look forward to it.

David Churchill is a film critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information.

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