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When most people think of Andy Serkis they picture the King of Motion Capture in one of those funny skintight suits with all the white dots on them. But the Golden Globe-winning British actor best known for bringing King Kong, Gollum, and revolutionary ape leader Caesar in this past weekend’s #1 box office smash, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, to life through digital movie magic is, at heart, also a kick-ass actor actor. And he doesn’t need a green screen to terrify and entertain you.
I give you Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, a little-seen 2010 biopic about British punk rock legend Ian Dury that earned Serkis a BAFTA nomination (which is the British equivalent of an Oscar, except Brad and Angelina don’t go to that show, so we never see it).
Dury and his band, the Blockheads, are best known for the song that gives the movie its name, a bouncy, gob-in-the-eye tune released at the height of the punk movement in July 1977 that sounds quaint when compared to The Clash’s lyrical firebombs. I mean, what better summation of everything that makes rock ’n’ roll a parent’s nightmare and a teenage dream than that couplet “Sex and drugs and rock and roll/Is all my brain and body need/Sex and drugs and rock and roll/Are very good indeed”?
As a teenager, I became fixated on the song when it was delivered to me on a mixtape cassette by my punk rock crush, Ellen. So, when I ran across the movie last year, I became obsessed again, not just with the song, but with the complicated, fractured man behind it, whose story I knew nothing about. Like the song, in Serkis’ hands Dury embodies both the rock ’n’ roll dream and nightmare: a man who rose from nothing (he briefly lived in a place he lovingly referred to as “Catshit Mansions”) to massive fame and the requisite country mansion through sheer force of will and ego.
All the filth, fury, debauchery and don’t give a f—ness embodied in the title song’s refrain are exactly what Serkis brings to Sex & Drugs. For a man best known for not showing his face, Serkis is a master of capturing the passion, and demons, that made Dury one of England’s most beloved, messy, and original rock eccentrics. Hell, he really looks like the late singer.
Caught somewhere between Shakespeare’s humpbacked “Richard III,” a coked-up carnival barker, and debauched poet Oscar Wilde, Serkis’ Dury is a cocksure carpe diem seeker who can’t relish the good without slathering it with some suffering.
The bobbling hobble caused by childhood polio, the razor-sharp muttonchop sideburns, greasy pompadour and smudged eyeliner that gave Dury his signature glam-rocker-on-a-bender fit Serkis like one of Gollum’s skintight motion capture suits. And the honking voice: Serkis’ original vocals nail the self-assured beer pub holler that prizes volume, authenticity and raw power over any sense of melody or originality. Hell, at one point Serkis/Dury happily acknowledges that the central riff of “Sex & Drugs” is a straight lift from Charlie Haden’s bass solo in “Ramblin’.”
“The immature artist plagiarizes, the mature artist steals,” Dury boasts. “And I am about to grow up!”
Serkis kills the physical embodiment, of course, contorting his torso so you feel the shame and pain of a withered hand and a shriveled leg forever locked in a metal and leather brace. He takes you deep into the conflicted heart of a broken man whose body betrayed him, whose lust constantly drew him away from his wife and children, and whose heart burst out of his chest for all to see, messily and often without regard for anyone’s feelings.
Proper actors playing punks can turn into one-note, predictable parodies in the wrong hands. But like Gary Oldman’s legendary Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy, Serkis transforms Dury into a loveable loser whose art and messy life blur together in a way that makes you want to cover your eyes and stare at the screen.
And lest you take it all too seriously, the dream-like performance sequences where Dury—in ghastly pancake makeup, sunken eyes, and pseudo-military garb tells the story of his life and how a once-promising swimmer and diver contracted polio from a swimming pool—remind us to “never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”