Some years ago I saw The Life and Death of Peter Sellers on DVD. It was a movie I had greatly looked forward to seeing, having long been a fan of Sellers, and having a slightly spooky connection with the great man. He was being played by Geoffrey Rush, an actor I greatly admire. What could possibly go wrong, you might think?
Well, this was a very dark and heavily stylised movie, trying to capture the essence of Sellers, the hole in his soul, the absence of the REAL man beneath the characters highlighted by Roger Lewis’s biography. The overwhelming emotion was melancholia, but the means of telling the tale undoubtedly alienated those parts of the audience expecting a straight biopic. Even if you gave the director and screenwriter some licence, this was a kaleidoscope of a movie, some aspects of which projected disturbing patterns. So my memories of that movie are that it was an interesting but not entirely successful experiment, but that Rush was more than just compelling, he was mesmerising – not merely an impersonation, more a total inhabitation.
So it is with S&D&R&R. Andy Serkis puts in a staggering performance of a fearsomely complex and paradoxical personality in Ian Dury, singing his songs, performing on stage with breathtaking charisma and no less chutzpah, Being There every bit as much as Sellers. He commands attention with ruthless efficiency. Eyes are riveted to Serkis’s Dury. At no point did it occur to you this was a man acting the role. It WAS Dury I saw, or at least those parts of the man most visible to the public. There was, as Chaz Jankel points out in the interviews accompanying the movie, a less theatrical and more serious Dury.
And yet…. in trying to capture the Dury chutzpah, the film goes haywire at regular intervals. So, like the Sellers movie, S&D&R&R is heavily stylised. In fact, the structure is deliberately fragmented, presumably to reflect Dury’s butterfly mind and also to connect strands within the great man’s life, accompanied by particular songs – like the sequence with Dury remembering his father (a powerful cameo by Ray Winstone) to the sound of a slow, mournful and almost whispered version of My Old Man. That I can live with; the silly graphics and pointless inter-cutting at times just makes the film annoying – a word Baxter used to describe his father in one interview (he also described him as bubbly and inspiring.) Some will take offence at what will be seen as gratuitous use of obscene language, though you could scarcely do a biopic of Dury in any other way.
This is primarily a movie woven around Dury’s relationships, notably with his son Baxter, his first wife Betty and girlfriend Denise Roudette (but not his second wife Sophy, though she was accorded a mention among the credits), his band (especially Jankel) and his father, some at a superficial level that fails to explore the underlying tensions.
For example, at one point Jankel tells Dury, as indeed he did in real life, that he wants to go off and do his own thing. Dury doesn’t look bothered either way. Some while later, Jankel returns and is embraced by Dury, who tells him it’s good to have him back. Granted that Dury was, by his own admission, a c*** on occasions, but there seem to be many pieces from that particular jigsaw missing, leaving a fairly arbitrary departure and return.
Of the two relationships explored in more depth and without obvious cardboard residue, Naomie Harris is not given a great deal to work with either to pick over the motivations driving Denise to return to Dury time and again. The curse, she says, is that she loves him, but at no point does the script go deeper – they are simply together, as they were in real life for six years.
That leaves Baxter, played with astonishing maturity by Bill Milner. This is one relationship where the film explores in full depth the complex nature of a father-son bonding, from resentment to admiration and every subtle shade inbetween – truly a love-hate relationship, contrasted with Dury’s hero worship of his own absentee dad.
Biopics are a difficult medium, to be fair. Telling accepted facts in chronological order might be dull, and fail to get beneath the surface of the character. Easy too to be either sycophantic or cynical about highly complex characters, so you need to find ways of being three dimensional within a limited timespan, bending reality no more than is absolutely necessary. Taking risks tends to be a very hit-or-miss process; when this movie works it works stupendously well, but along the way Matt Whitecross has made a very flawed movie. Definitely worth seeing for Serkis alone, but somehow a calmer hand to steady the ship might have helped the narrative stand out from the chaos.