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Andy Serkis has already been nominated for a BAFTA Award for his lead performance in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, which from the start lends the film the kind of prestige and attention that's rare at the Tribeca Film Festival. And as if it knew about the pressure ahead of time, the film opens with a blast of color and sound, combining a solo onstage performance, a flashback to happier times and an animated title sequence within a particularly crazy 10 minutes. Even if nothing in the rest of the film quite matches that opening bravado and skill, it's a perfect opening salvo for a film that, even if it doesn't really know where it's going, has plenty of clever style while getting there.
A biopic that's dead set on not looking like one, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll chops up the story of Dury's rise to fame between flashbacks to the singer's troubled childhood, animated sequences, and performances that veer frequently over into the surreal. All that switching around makes it a little difficult to keep track of the story basics, but here goes: Dury contracted polio as a child, was sent by his well-meaning father (Ray Winstone, in flashbacks) to a harsh institution run by a terrorizing headmaster (Toby Jones), grew up to marry a pretty woman (Olivia Williams) who gave birth to their first son while Ian was rehearsing with his band downstairs, then moved out and shacked up with a beautiful 19-year-old (Naomie Harris) who stayed with him longer than any woman in her right mind should have. That's roughly where the movie picks up, following Dury as he forms The Blockheads, helps form the punk rock movement of the 70s, and repeatedly acts like a giant jerk to everyone around him.
Director Mat Whitecross seems aware that his subject doesn't quite fit the usual biopic mold-- Dury even uses a late-career charity single as a chance to piss people off-- so he refreshingly dispenses with the moralistic finger-wagging or redemptive arcs you might usually find in rock biopics. The film forces you to reckon with a less-than-heroic hero, but it is entirely up to the audience to determine Dury's moral value, and to decide whether any of the people in his life who loved him were crazy to do so. Serkis's fearless, completely engaging performance only complicates things further; we like this guy, even when we very well know we shouldn't.
Whitecross also departs from the norm by making the film something of a coming-of-age story for Dury's son Baxter, who moved in with his father as an adolescent and was soon styling his hair in a mohawk and throwing temper tantrums at school. Baxter's childhood is privileged in all the ways his father's was not, but you see father and son struggling with the same impulses of rebellion and the desire for comfort and acceptance. The frequent flashbacks to Dury's childhood don't have nearly the same impact as simply watching Baxter struggle in his father's shadow.
It's hard to write about Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll without at least acknowledging the visual invention in the animated sequences and concert scenes, but in reality, Whitecross fails to connect any of that visual whimsy with the actual story at hand. The formation of the Blockheads is conveyed in a zippy animated sequence reminiscent of Help!, but it dispatches with the band's story so quickly that we never get a sense of who any of these guys are. And when Dury sees his father's reflection in a shop window, or imagines his younger self onstage with him during a concert, we understand that this childhood plays a huge role in his adult life, but not how or why. Whitecross's willingness to experiment with the biopic form is admirable and refreshing, but in the end it's a lot of good intentions absent of a real purpose.
Still, as a vehicle for a single, mesmerizing performance, Sex & Drugs a smashing success. Serkis's magnetic presence doesn't just guide the film over its many road bumps, but provides a compelling reason for revisiting the figure of Ian Dury to begin with-- spending time with this man, as embodied by Serkis, is pleasurable and infuriating and fascinating all at once. Serkis, famous for embodying Gollum and King Kong in Peter Jackson's fantasy films, is electric in his biggest role as a human being, and reason enough to see Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.
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