You may recall that "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll" was the name of a song by Ian Dury and the Blockheads, a British New Wave punk band from the late 1970s and early '80s. If you don't remember it, or if you're not sure you've heard of Ian Dury, the film named after the song will do little to enlighten you. Dury may have been a colorful figure, and the film is stylishly directed, but it follows the same musical-biopic formula already used in countless other movies. There's nothing here for someone who isn't already an Ian Dury fan.
It might create some new Andy Serkis fans, though. The English actor, so far best known for playing Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films, gets to show his real face (it looks like Rowan Atkinson's) and perform without digital enhancement. His lively performance has as much gusto as the real Ian Dury's must have. The band's concerts look like a cross between a rock show and a circus, with Ian, in gaudy costumes and burlesque makeup, acting the part of the carnival barker. Serkis clearly relishes the experience.
Offstage, he plays Ian as a temperamental S.O.B., as is common among rock stars, and especially among rock stars who have movies made about them. A childhood bout with polio left Ian with a bum leg, and flashbacks -- yes, there are flashbacks -- show his troubled relationship with his father (played by Ray Winstone) and the headmaster (Toby Jones) at the school for disabled children he was sent to. As an adult, Ian is stubbornly committed to living life on his own terms, which appears to mean doing pretty much whatever the hell he wants to. His wife, Betty (Olivia Williams), must come downstairs immediately after giving birth to their child to ask him and his bandmates to please keep the noise down. The screenplay, by first-timer Paul Viragh, jumps around the timeline quite a bit, so it's hard to know exactly when everything is occurring. But it would seem that at some point in the 1970s, Ian leaves Betty and shacks up with a groupie named Denise (Naomie Harris), who is younger and more carefree, what with not having to support Ian's children. We should feel bad for Denise (or maybe for Naomie Harris), because later she will be required to utter the line, "My mistake is loving him."
The trajectory will be familiar to anyone who has seen any movie of this genre: fame, success, wild times, setbacks, egomania, substance abuse, and so forth. Its only distinction, apart from Serkis' engaging, rubber-faced performance, is the direction, by Mat Whitecross. Normally a documentarian (this is his first narrative feature), Whitecross has a flair for the visual that doesn't overstay its welcome or become cute. He moves from real life to the stage fluidly, suggesting that Ian's life is one big performance.
But what Whitecross fails to establish is why any of this matters. I had no particular interest in the music of Ray Charles before I saw Ray; afterward, I wanted to check him out. The same goes for Johnny Cash and Walk the Line. Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, on the other hand, does nothing to pique my curiosity about Ian Dury. He strikes me as just another rock star with the usual tumultuous lifestyle, given the run-of-the-mill biopic treatment. He probably deserves better.