A Crippled Lyricism

andy_ianSex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

By the time of his death in 2000, illness had once more had a transfigurative affect on the life of Ian Dury. Cancer, and the public knowledge of his impending absence from the world, turned him into a national treasure, the much-beloved rogue who had a magical turn of phrase. Mat Whitecross is no stranger to touchy subjects -- he proved that with Road to Guantanamo -- but Dury, notoriously cantankerous and volatile, is presented here in a warts-and-all cavalcade of chaos. He remains strangely lovable when many of his actions are not. The pace of the movie is as jagged and frenetic as one of Dury's frequent rages, but once it settles into a semi-narrative, the spirit of the man emerges. It is a white-knuckle ride of pathos and monstrosity.

What holds the proceedings together is Andy Serkis. His performance is never an impression, more a strange act of demonic possession. He veers from a socket-popping lunatic to a man of intense refinement and extreme vulnerability. That he is surrounded by an equally brilliant supporting cast allows the jagged flashback nature of the story to never derail. The film is almost stolen by Bill Milner as Dury's son Baxter. Having Dury as an absent, unreliable father plays havoc with the boy's feelings. The pair had a chaotic relationship, and the films draws heavily on the repercussions of his father's fecklessness, and that of his supporting cast of miscreants and cronies. Naomie Harris is excellent as Denise, the composite girlfriend, a symbolic simplicity employed because there were so many, and Dury's inability to step away from his marriage is also drawn with sublime insight, aided by Olivia Williams in an achingly majestic performance as his wife Betty.

One of the major flaws of the film is its reliance on the myth Ian Dury made of himself. His middle-class roots are never dwelt upon, and his Art School background doesn't get a look in. His relationship with his posh mother, and her equally refined sisters, doesn't figure. although Ray Winstone makes an excellent cameo appearance as his father, Bill. Dury was as much of a construct as Tom Waits or Quentin Crisp, a man playing a part that eventually consumes the original person. The differences of class and intellect between his parents go a long way towards explaining his slavishly downward-mobile persona. Sadly this insight is never explored. What emerges from this juggling and omitting of certain truths is a strong sense of an angry, often spiteful man who played his friends and collaborators like a vengeful monarch, but whose gains were mostly short-lived, and to the detriment of his career. When he flies into a rage over the mealy-mouthed objections of some flunky to his single "Spasticus Autisticus," made to promote the year of the disabled, he nails the disapproval by seething, "I didn't write it for walkie talkies!"

The humiliations heaped upon Dury at school, his defiance over adversity, and his manic determination to succeed as an act of revenge, brought forth a man who was never at peace with himself or others. This film is a bit of a glorious shambles, just like the man it so obviously, and justly, seeks to celebrate. - Robert Cochrane

Ian Dury & The Blockheads

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Mr. Cochrane is a poet and writer living in Manchester, England. His work has appeared in Mojo, Attitude, and Dazed & Confused. He has published three collections of poems, and Gone Tomorrow, his biography of the rock singer Jobriath, will appear soon.