All My Brain And Body Needs: Movie Night With Ian Dury

“There are a couple of ways to avoid death…one is to be magnificent.” - IAN DURY (1942 –2000)

Last night, Liza and I watched the recent Ian Dury biopic, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, starring Andy Serkis, who gives his Dury a theatrical cheeky chappy intensity pitched somewhere between Joel Grey in Cabaret in John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig And The Angry Inch.

First I just wanna say that I’m becoming increasingly dubious about biopics. On the one hand, if you care about the life and music of an artist (Johnny Cash say, or Joy Division) it can be fascinating to watch dramatic recreations of the life of that artist, with contemporary actors bringing those stories to life. On the other hand, if you care about the life and music of the artist (Buddy Holly say, or The Runaways) you may not want to see contemporary actors attempting to impersonate those artists and may do better with a well-made documentary instead. Still, the real power comes from what we’ll call “sympathetic liberties”, meaning that if a team of filmmakers (writer, director, actors and music supervisors) can come up with a depiction that not only tells the straight story (as a documentary already handles quite well, thank you) but goes further and somehow implies more meaning about the story (using  arty cinematic diversion and impressionistic images) maybe these films become a deeper window on which to contextualize the music itself. Which is after all why we show up for these things.

I think this all dates back to Bob Fosse‘s jazz-handed auto-biopic All That Jazz (1979), which appears to have, indirectly or otherwise, established a new template for macabre and impressionistic biopics. That template was reconstructed with Michael Winterbottom’s 2004 feature, 24 Hour Party People, which merely begins as the biography of Factory Records supremo Tony Wilson before taking a comic detour into The Beatles Magical Mystery Tour land, and has forever derailed the strict narrative form of biopics.

“People like me don’t want sympathy, they want respect,” Ian Dury.

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, directed by Mat Whitecross from a dark fantasia of a script by Paul Viragh, will first make you grit your teeth before taking you on brutal and fast-paced ride (in a transit van) through the life and career of rock poet, lothario, genius, idiot and polio survivor (the word “victim” could never apply) Ian Dury, who died from complications due to cancer ten years ago. Here’s the trailer for the film:

The first jarring image is that of Andy Serkis, who looks and sounds like Dury, or rather a dramatically enhanced Dury. His gruff tone, his limp, his bawdy music hall banter, it’s all there as the spotlight opens on a smoky burlesque soliloquy and quickly moves to a brilliant, but disorienting, animated title sequence (by Sgt. Pepper cover artist Peter Blake) which rushes us through shrieking saxophones, whizzing smash cuts and various band member sackings, all of this to convey that our protagonistic is “Not A Man To Be Admired”. That’s right, it turns out Ian Dury could be a right selfish bastard. Apparently this is well known, and elaborated on in depth in Will Birch‘s new and critically acclaimed book, Ian Dury: The Definitive Biography. “Love the art,” my songwriter friend Bob Kemmis once sang, “Not the artist. It’s safest, it’s smartest.” And this is true of Whitecross and Viragh’s films, which goes to Felliniesque lengths to demonstrate that Dury was a bad husband, a dictatorial band leader with mood swings as mercurial as his flair for wordplay was brilliant. Apparently, though, besides an on again off again working relationship to his musical foil Chaz Jankel (played amiably if two-dimensionally by Tom Hughes), a few moments of artist peer tenderness with his estranged wife Betty (wonderfully realized by Rushmore’s Olivia Williams) anda combustibly passionate relationship with his mistress Denise (Naomie Harris), his strongest relationship appears to have been with his son, Baxter, played with depth and subtlety by Son Of Rambow star Bill Milner. Baxter, who has endorsed the film, was there for all of it. In fact, we have photographic evidence of this as he was the little boy standing beside Dury on the cover of his iconic New Boots And Panties album, the shoot for which is re-created in the film (See Serkis and Milner, inset).

I have to admit, I hated this film for the first thirty minutes. Then I just hated Ian Dury. Then, because I have the patience of Job, I stuck it out and started to realize that I was learning a lot (through chaotic images) about the life an underappreciated artist (and prick) who’s story was being told in a wild and crazy style befitting a man who not only wrote the song “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” but also wrote “Reasons To Be Cheerful, Part 3.”

In Nick Hornby’s excellent book, 31 Songs, released in North America as Songbook, Dury’s  “Reasons To Be Cheerful Part 3″ comes in at Number 22, and the author goes as far as suggesting that the song would be an appropriate replacement for the British national anthem: “Dury’s song is a reminder that there is (was?) a different British heritage, something other than Cool Britannia and Merchant Ivory. [The song] mentions Health Service glasses (we still have a Health Service), and the Bolshoi Ballet (we never had a Red Scare) and singing along to Smokey (we love, have always loved, our black American music – indeed, we have turned into its curators – and we never thought that Disco Sucked)… and when Ian Dury gives thanks, in that art-school Cockney voice, for ‘something nice to study’ it almost breaks your heart: self-teaching, too, is part of our twentieth century history…” Summing up, Hornby declares that, “For a piece of funk whimsy,’Reasons To Be Cheerul’ is culturally very precise, if you listen to it closely enough; whether it refers to a vanished golden age, only time will tell.”

Only time will tell if I loved this film or was just stunned into submission (it’s only been 18 hours since I saw it), but I have to admit, Andy Serkis’s performance made a strong impression on me and key plot points (the whole scandal over Dury’s “Spasticus Autisticus” being banned by the BBC) made me hanker to read Birch’s book and re-listen to the original albums. Maybe that’s all you can hope for from a biopic. But of course, now I want to seek out a real life documentary.

What about you? Do biopics work? Do you prefer documentaries? What are your favourite biopics or docs? Who got it wrong? Let me know in the comments section.

And now, here’s the real Ian Dury, for your musical enjoyment:

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4 Responses to “All My Brain And Body Needs: Movie Night With Ian Dury”

  1. Alan Zweig Says:

    I don’t prefer documentaries but sometimes I do. The business of “imitation” which you mentioned, is the sticking point. The fictional treatments are fine until you’re reminded of the real thing. This happened recently with the fictional and non-fictional Joy Division films coming out around the same time. I was impressed with the “accuracy” of the fictional film until I saw the doc, which made the fictional one kind of redundant. In principle, the idea that you could act out certain parts of a musician’s life, rather than just talking about it, makes the fictional treatment attractive but fictional biopics almost always seem rushed. You spend half an hour on one year of their lives and then five minutes on the next twenty years. All the montages are the same. All the scenes with their first wives. All the scenes with their more interesting mistresses. I loved Ian Dury, I’m intrigued that there’s a film about him and I’m almost certain I won’t love it for the same reasons I almost never love them. Pretty well the only times I love them are with the docs, “New York Doll” being a good example.

  2. I love all rock docs/movies. Even the bad ones. Oliver Stones’ “The Doors” comes to mind. 2 movies that I loved as a kid that was always on TV was “That’ll be the Day” and “Stardust”. Both starring David Essex. These two really don’t apply here because they are fictional but are very good films about the rise of a poor working class musician who turns into a gigantic pop star. It has people like Ringo Starr, Keith Moon and Dave Edmunds in the first film. Adam Faith and Larry Hagman (as the asshole American manager who buys his contract) in the second film. If you ever get a chance, please watch these one after another for full effect.

    Docs that worked for me were: Dig, The Kids are Alright, End of the Century, Cocksucker Blues, I am trying to Break your Heart, Don’t look Back and of course The Last Waltz.

    Still waiting for someone to make a movie about Phil Spector.

  3. [...] The Pulmyears Music Blog Musings on music from the desk of Paul Myers. « All My Brain And Body Needs: Movie Night With Ian Dury [...]

  4. oh man, great topic. i am going to stick to a few observations because i’ve been thinking about this for years, and have way too much to say…

    generally, biopics are disastrous. for so many reasons. hollywood has storytelling conventions and clichés that must be honored, starting with the idealization of the subject. this precedes the rock ‘n’ roll biopic—it’s fully operationl in “rhapsody in blue,” ostensibly the life story of george gershwin, and “night and day,” which gave us cary grant as cole porter (geez!).

    you may be right about all that jazz fostering the impressionistic, richard lester-ish slant.

    then there’s the codification of the great musician myth, as parodied perfectly in “walk hard”: 1) tragedy in childhood 2) crippling conflict with a parent 3) at least one drug-induced collapse onstage 4) eventual triumph over adversity. it’s all so dull, so reductive, so flatterning.

    the thing about johnny cash and elvis and ray charles and etta james and whoever else is that they were actually great—imitations only highlight the gulf between that unique artist and the rest of us shmos. it’s not fair to expect mere mortals to embody these people. and the more you know about the artist in question, the more the idealization and flattening hurts.

    i can think of one exception: sid and nancy. and of course it isn’t about genius. but it is a great movie, even though the guy who played johnny rotten didn’t have lydon’s incandescence.

    otherwise, docos for me.

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