If you haven’t heard of British punk rock/new wave sensations Ian Dury & The Blockheads, you’ll be annoyed that you hadn’t once you see Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, an innovative take on the standard biopic which you can watch On Demand now right as it’s premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival. Andy Serkis stars as the contentious, cantankerous and cacophonous singer/songwriter Dury, a genius wordsmith with a wretched childhood afflicted with polio who grew up to be a surly but charming malcontent of legendary bastardry. The film gives us insight into his strange family life, which proved he was not without his softer side, as hard as it could be to find.
Director Mat Whitecross and screenwriter Paul Viragh have constructed the film to allow Serkis’ Dury to use the stage as his pulpit to tell his story, which in this case focuses on his private life more than his public one with his bands, although it’s an indelible part of him. He was separated but still married to his long-suffering first wife Betty, the mother of his two children – his daughter Jemima, who didn’t cotton to his nonsense, and his younger son Baxter, who desperately clings to him as an unfortunate role model.
“I wanted to write Rocky, basically,” Viragh says of what drew him to this project in the first place. “I wanted to write a boxing movie about a guy who goes down in the last round and then fights his way back up and doesn’t quite win the match but wins for himself, and when I was looking at all the ’70s movie stuff, I was thinking ‘the stories aren’t that good, where’s the fighter?’ Then I looked at Ian Dury, and he was 35 – supposedly over the hill for a rock and roll star – couldn’t really sing, wasn’t that good looking and had been disabled by polio. That’s my eureka moment, and then there’s the dilemma – what do you do? I’d never done a real-life person before as a writer and I just thought I don’t want to do any number of those films that I’m sure we’ve all seen that are biopics. The idea from the beginning was not to try and go against all the traditional routes that those things go. Normally, the songs turn up and they’re the hit singles of the person who’s being ‘biopicced,’ and they tend to end up in a montage sequence because the song doesn’t really fit in. I didn’t really want to do that. I wanted to use the songs to actually tell story. I’m very lucky that obviously, they’re fantastic songs, but they’re all story songs with characters. They all kind of feed into that.”
“It’s so difficult trying to compress anyone’s life,” Whitecross said of their philosophy going into the film, “especially Ian’s, which had so many highs and so many lows – 60 years into the space of two hours. One thing we all kind of agreed on is that anyone’s life is incredibly kaleidoscopic, and rather than trying to squeeze his life into our story, it made more sense to have each scene quite fragmented, with lots of smaller scenes which give you an impression of someone, and the way of harnessing it was the musical. That, to me, seemed a truer way of trying to capture his anarchic energy.”
“It’s difficult to do people’s lives,” Viragh concurs. “Things don’t happen exactly as they happened in real life. It’s an emotional truth and an emotional history because of the compression. The traditional biopic has that great moment of that gig in Stuttgart in 1976 where that thing happened, and it’s kind of fine, but you want all those stories together, because then you pack a bigger emotional punch, I think. You write from yourself. I didn’t want to write something impersonal. I didn’t want to write something where maybe only the Blockhead fans would come. I wanted lots of people to come, so I tried to look at the life from the family end of the telescope.”
Thanks to the luck of Viragh’s agent having known Jemima Dury in college, they were able to work closely with the family from the start, and Baxter Dury was a huge part of what the film eventually became – and his “Baxaggerations” also reinforced Viragh’s preference of emotional truth over historical truth.
“It’s very tricky going into adapting anything,” Whitecross explains, “and what Paul decided very early on with Andy was that it was going to be about fathers and sons, it was going to be about relationships, it was going to be about the clash between the private and public personas of Ian. Once we got that idea, it was very easy to go back to the family, who had been incredibly responsive and helped us all the way through, and talk to Baxter, take him out for drinks and say ‘actually, what we need now is a father-son moment. Was there ever a moment when the public Ian Dury’s huge larger-than-life persona came back to the private family life? Did the two ever clash?’ And he sat there quite drunk and said ‘not really. I suppose there was the time when he spiked my stepdad’s turkey with drugs.’ We could use that, it was so great, up to the point where we actually started shooting, when he turned up and went quite ashen-faced because he suddenly realized all the tall tales and exaggerations – we used to call him Baxaggeration, that was his nickname – were suddenly going to be turned into a film and people were going to see them. He got completely freaked out, he was like ‘I might have made this up! I’m not sure!’”
Lest you think that makes the film a lie, there’s a scene right at the beginning of the film where Dury tells his audience to “never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Whitecross believes his take on the film is in line with that. “He’s very wry,” he says of Baxter. “It’s more about the performance rather than worrying too much about what’s true or not. Every time he tells a story, even in the same conversation, he’d change his mind about it. Unfortunately or fortunately, it was the same with everyone else we spoke to. For us, since we’re saying Ian’s in charge, if you read every single interview he did, he’d hone his anecdote a little bit and change it, so I felt like it didn’t matter that much.”
Serkis was involved in the production from very early on as well, and although he’d never seen Dury in concert, he had actually met the man. “He was going to write the music for a play based on a book by Sue Townsend, who wrote Adrian Mole. She wrote a book called The Queen and I, which was about the queen being rehoused on a council estate in Leicester. It was a very funny play, and Ian was going to write the music for it. He came up, we were all very excited. He was obviously a bit of a hero. We met in this Chinese restaurant and he just happened to be in one of those not-so-good moods. He was really nasty and horrible to everyone. He was a complete bastard, actually. In a way, I’m so glad he was. It’s always a funny thing, meeting heroes, and there was no golden glow around him by any stretch. He was abusive to all the waiters, nasty to everybody in the room, got very drunk, fell over on the pavement and got dumped by Mickey Gallagher of the Blockheads who said ‘I’m not going to take care of you anymore.””
One criticism of the film is that it perhaps focuses too much on Dury’s cruel side, but Serkis maintains that’s what the story actually was. “It was interesting when you’re making a film about someone like Ian, who is a national treasure,” he explained. “In the UK, he touched a lot of people’s lives and a lot of people are very sad that he’s gone, because he had that incredible way of communicating across the strata of society, from the underdog to ‘the housewife’s favorite punk’ being one of his titles. When we had taken the first draft to [his family] and we were very worried about him being an unsympathetic character, and the financiers were always worried about him being an unsympathetic character – his family took one look at the script and they’d written lots of notes and they said ‘he was much more of a c–t than that. You’re going to have to be really down and dirty with him.’ So we knew we were okay.”
“A lot of it had to do with his terrible upbringing,” Whitecross explained of how his childhood commitment to an institution for the disabled likely caused Dury to become such a difficult man. “To go into the weird psychology, the wisdom at the time was ‘if you become disabled, society is going to treat you badly, so if we treat you worse, that’s the best preparation you can have.’ So they really brutalized people in those institutions. It was really sink or swim. You fall over, you pick yourself up or you stay on the ground. Growing up with that, having come from a quite comfortable upper middle class background and suddenly being thrown into there – it didn’t matter what your background was, it was the great leveler, polio, because anyone could pick it up, obviously – on one hand, it gave him an amazing drive to succeed. It made him completely ruthless and determined. He was so driven that somehow he made it work. The flip side to that is you become so damaged and so closed and cut-off that when anyone comes close to you, you push them away.”
The role was physically demanding for Serkis as well. “About six months beforehand, I started learning how to use the calipers and losing weight – Ian was a very diminutive figure, obviously withered on the left hand side of his body from polio then but very, very strong on his right hand side. He was hairless, so I had my entire body waxed, which is the most painful thing I’ve ever done in my life, by a young Lithuanian girl in Crouch End who had never waxed anybody before, and I can tell you it was excruciating.”
Once again, for mastering that part of the portrayal, Serkis credits Dury’s family “who talked me through how he worked through his disability, how he used people as human props, how he psychologically would cut you to shreds if for a second he thought you weren’t being an honest person in his presence. We’re eternally grateful to his family who really did put themselves out. A lot of them is up on the screen.”
Perhaps the movie doesn’t focus enough on the Blockheads as some would like, but they are definitely a part of this film. “The real remaining Blockheads recorded the music with Andy, re-recording all the music they had originally written and we used that in the film, so we feel very privileged to be a part of that history,” Whitecross said.
Serkis goes into more detail about how intimidated he was at that prospect. “We worked on this project on and off for about three years, and finally, they came in February before principal photography started shooting, and we had two days with the Blockheads to record 18 songs. It had been a huge passion project for all of us. We’d always said ‘wouldn’t it be amazing to actually get to record with the Blockheads?’ They still do tour around. That first day of trying to step up to the plate and record, the first song was ‘Wake Up And Make Love With Me,’ which features in the movie. It was an extraordinary emotional thing for everybody, because you had these guys who worked with Ian 30 years ago and toured with him day and day out, knew him so well, loved and hated him – they had that kind of relationship with him. It was very, very intense. He was very exacting as a human being. He put them through it, he really did. He was very much the actor-manager leading the troupe and he really taxed them a lot, but he got great musicianship out of them. So to get the chance to record with them was terrifying actually – really, really ass-clenchingly terrifying on that first day. But once we got going they started to respond pretty quick, and finally, they were really generous and incredibly supportive all the way through. To be in the same room with them, in a tiny little recording studio playing that music was mind-blowing.”
Whitecross noted that the feeling of intimidation was mutual with the Blockheads. “One of them took me aside at the beginning and said they were terrified of being in the same room as Gollum and Captain Haddock,” he said.
Viragh revealed that one of them had an even more stark reaction. “Davey Payne, the saxophonist who headbutts everybody and who’d known Ian the longest came out of the recording session and said ‘It’s like a seance in there.’”
“Ian never made it in the States,” Whitecross says, when talking about his film’s inclusion in the Tribeca Film Festival, as well as the Video On Demand program. “He came over here and misbehaved on the Lou Reed tour and basically burned all his bridges as he always used to. Generally speaking, he didn’t really make that transition. He’s not even that well known among my generation as he should be in England. So I feel like he’s finally making the trip properly. That’s what we tried to do with the film, trying to introduce him to a new generation.”