According to Ian Dury, there are a couple of ways to avoid death. One of these, the Essex-born punk legend asserted, was to be magnificent. On that basis, with this performance, Andy Serkis is now immortal. Look, Dury said so, and I'm not arguing with him.
It’s not that Serkis gives the best performance by a British actor that I can remember, it’s one of the best performances I’ve ever seen, full stop. This is up there with Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dorothy Parker in Mrs Parker & The Vicious Circle: seriously, it's THAT good. Serkis looks like Dury. He speaks like Dury. He acts like the unadulterated twat even Dury’s own family admit the singer could be: hell, after seeing early scenes, Dury’s ex-wife and son apparently told Serkis that he needed to go further and be “a lot more cunty”. And he did.
Best of all — and truly gobsmacking — Serkis even sings like Dury. All the music here is not the actor lip-synching to New Boots & Panties et al, it's Serkis performing with Dury’s old band, The Blockheads. If that sounds like a disaster in the offing, Dury’s long term collaborator Chaz Jankel said that during the sessions he heard a track coming from the studio and assumed the boys were playing Serkis the original for reference. In fact, they were listening to a take Serkis had just recorded.
It is then, a brilliant impersonation. But it's also so much more, a simply brilliant portrayal of one of music’s most interesting, charming and, yes, frequently unpleasant, characters. The film takes a scattergun approach to Dury’s eccentric existence, from the early days of first band, the brilliantly named Kilburn and the High Roads, to the latter stages of his career. It’s pretty much warts and all, touching on Dury’s apparent abandonment issues, his unpleasant childhood, the polio that left him with one withered leg through his adult life, his drug problems and, most of all, his generally unusual relationships with his nearest and dearest, including first wife Betty (Williams), long-term girlfriend Denise (Harris), members of the band and, particularly, his son Baxter (Milner).
Whitecross plays around with structure, celebrating Dury the artist and poet with joyous visual abandon. It’s essentially the sort of wild creativity you expected Sam Taylor-Wood to try with her pedestrian directorial debut Nowhere Boy. That film left you feeling you’d seen a masterclass in acting from Kristin Scott-Thomas and Anne-Marie Duff rather than learned anything about Lennon. Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll wades heartily into every aspect of Dury’s nature, from the charm to the more “cunty” aspects: the result is a biopic that leaves you feeling you’ve actually got closer to its subject.
And above all there’s Serkis, who MUST be rewarded with every possible acting gong available. He won’t win the Oscar — I doubt Dury’s witty word play and Essex English made much impact that side of the Atlantic — but if BAFTA don’t throw little statues at him, there is no justice. He’s exceptional and the film is brilliant. A work of genius about a genius? You could knock me down with a feather...