Ian Dury Gets His Due

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Published May 5, 2010

ANDY SERKIS IN SEX & DRUGS & ROCK & ROLL

While something of an unknown in the US, Ian Dury achieved iconic status in the late ‘70s and early ’80s in his native England, thanks to hits like “Reasons to Be Cheerful” and “Spaticus Austisticus,” a song Dury, who had been afflicted by polio as a child, wrote for the UN’s Year of the Disabled, only to have it go unused by the institution and suffer banishment from daytime radio play. Equal parts funk, rock and rap, his music was entirely unique when he rose to fame as the frontman of the Blockheads at the dawn of New Wave. Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (currently screening at the Tribeca Film Festival) is a kaleidoscopic view of the life of the British punk star. Helmed by director Mat Whitecross, the project sets up Dury’s life as an in-depth concert film, using his music as the primary means of presenting his story. At the center is British actor Andy Serkis (best known as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy) who, with his growling voice and tastelessly long sideburns, is at once strikingly dynamic and vaguely threatening in his depiction of Dury–just as a rockstar should be.

Serkis, who also produced and helped write the script (along with his friend, actor Paul Viragh), recalled his first experience listening to the Blockheads: “I first discovered Ian when I was about 14,” he says. “I remember quite vividly being on a coach going to a camping trip to school and everybody crowding around a transistor radio to listen to ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ and it was just–you know, I grew up with three sisters who were listening to Cat Stevens–just hearing this extraordinary growling, rasping. You know, a kind of ranting force on the radio.”

Although Serkis bears an uncanny resemblance to Dury, he still had to pull off the sensitive portrayal of the musician’s pronounced limp, a result of his bout with polio. To do so, the actor underwent a severe physical transformation: “[Dury] had a very kind of diminutive figure, so I had to lose a lot of weight,” he says. “Then I had to work up myself on one side of my body because, you know, he was very fit on one side of his body, and then very weedy, obviously, on the other side. And he was hairless, entirely hairless, so I had to have my entire body waxed–the most frightening thing I’ve ever done in my life.” He added: “[The waxing] was carried out by this young Lithuanian girl–it was supposed to last one hour-and-a-half, and it lasted three hours. She had never heated up wax before–my God she heated it up to a degree that, you know, is on the verge of torturous!”  

For his part, Whitecross, who wasn’t previously familiar with Dury’s work, initially balked at the prospect of taking on the biopic, which is his first solo feature: “I felt a little bit like a fraud when I was approached. I said ‘I’m not the right person for this. You need some kind of fan, someone that’s obsessed with music. If you don’t have the passion for it, you shouldn’t be doing the film.’ And Dave said, ‘No, no, that is exactly why we do want you, because we grew up with Ian. For us, it’s an opportunity to try and introduce Ian to a new generation, your generation, so let’s start with a blank slate and hopefully, the fact that you are completely ignorant about the subject matter is a benefit, actually.'”