It’s very likely most people have heard the term “Sex and drugs and rock and roll” used in different contextual references over the years, though how many people realize this ethos was first glorified in the 1977 hit single by the quintessentially British group Ian Dury and the Blockheads? Although Dury and his band had a few more hits after that, the group never really took off in the United States or elsewhere the same way they did in England, and when Dury died in March 2000, it may have seemed like their musical legacy would die with him.
Along comes actor Andy Serkis, best known for his performance capture stints as Gollum in Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and as the title character in Jackson’s King Kong, who took it upon himself to turn Ian Dury’s life story into the movie Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.
More than just a biopic, the movie features Serkis personifying the eclectic behavior of the band’s frontman, who didn’t allow the disabilities suffered due to Polio to affect his ability to perform. In fact, Serkis himself does the vocals on some of Dury’s best known songs for the movie, rerecording them with the original Blockheads, and then performing many of them in front of an audience. Although the movie is very much about the music, Serkis is also quite impressive while portraying Dury during some of the more emotional and intimate moments with his family, particularly his impressionable young son Baxter (played by Bill Milner from Son of Rambow).
Last week, the movie debuted at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival allowing ComingSoon.net a chance to sit down with Serkis and the film’s director Mat Whitecross, who previously co-directed and edited The Road to Guantanamo and The Shock Doctrine with Michael Winterbottom.
ComingSoon.net: Earlier today, I was able to rewatch the movie on Video-on-Demand to prepare for this interview, so that’s a really helpful resource.
Matt Whitecross: I think what Tribeca is doing is very inspiring because that is the future of distribution. We are in problematic times. Indie films are being squeezed out of the market, at least in cinemas. I think you need to be proactive and that’s what they’re doing.
CS: It’s also great because you don’t have to spend the entire film festival worrying if someone is going to buy your movie and whether it will get released properly when that’s all already taken care of.
Whitecross: Yeah, absolutely true.
CS: Andy, I know this project started with you or rather with your friend Paul (Viragh) who wrote the script. Were both of you really big Ian Dury fans or did that just fit into the type of movie the two of you wanted to make together?
Andy Serkis: I suppose I was slightly too young to be a big fan in terms of seeing him live and stuff, but I was totally into his music. I aware of his music from about the age of 14 and saw him on “Top of the Pops” and saw this incredibly unique out-there wild performer. I think it was seeing him more on “Top of the Pops” that actually made him resonate to me really as just this wacky, eclectic ball of energy and visual styles. All the band looked totally different, the Blockheads. Everyone in the band was totally different whereas at the time, people were trying to kind of look all the same, even then. With the Blockheads, everyone had their own style. I think it was the whole thing, then just the sound that really appealed to me.
CS: It was also very different for the times (late ’70s), because everyone was doing punk or new wave and they were into things like funk and soul. Obviously, Matt, you’re younger than both of us, so is there a legacy of the Blockheads that you were aware of when they came to you to direct?
Whitecross: Not at all. I was completely ignorant going into this project. I kind of felt for that reason, I wasn’t the right person to do it, and it was Damian Jones the producer who originally approached me. We’d been talking about doing a couple of different films that hadn’t worked out, and he said “How about this Ian Dury film that I’m working on?” I didn’t say “no” exactly but I did say that I didn’t think I was the right person for it, and he said, “Well, go off and do a bit of research and meet with Paul and Andy and let’s see what their take is.” I went off and listened to the albums, and the albums are great, but I still wasn’t sure, and then I started watching the YouTube clips and the documentaries I’d been given and it immediately flipped me around 180 degrees. I thought, “Oh, My God, I’ve GOT to make this film now,” and became more obsessive than the most obsessive fan. When you see him on the stage, as Andy says and as I think Andy brilliantly portrays, he is this whirling dervish, this amazing mesmerizing force and there’s no one really like him before or after. He’s absolutely unique, he’s a one-off, so that’s what really hooked me, but I felt slightly ashamed, like I was a fool going into it, because everyone else in the production had some kind of connection. They’d seen him live or they’d met him or they were fans since they were kids, and I hadn’t been, but Damian’s idea really was to try and find someone who didn’t have that connection, who could maybe worry about the story rather than worrying too much about the details or about the music and being too stressed about the huge personality of Ian.
CS: The movie covers a lot of ground, not just what we already know about Dury’s career, but a lot of stuff from the early days and also his family life at both ends of his career. What kind of research was involved with that? Was Paul spending months and months with the family?
Serkis: He spent a long time, he spent a year and a half, two years, talking closely with the family. He almost became sort of a therapist for them, because they were going through a big catharsis in agreeing to get involved with this project. It was only relatively recently, it was seven years ago, that he died when we started working on the project. It’s only ten now, it’s exactly the ten year anniversary now. Yeah, Paul and also myself, we both went out to meet them, and then when Mat came on board, they gave so much of themselves to the project, and a lot of what is on screen are either exaggerations but all based in their memories of events. Covering everything from how he behaved publicly, how he was privately, incident, moments, they opened up the lock-up where Ian’s stuff had all been put after he diedletters, very private mementos, photos. There were costumes I wore on set that were Ian’s clothes that were given to us. At the end of it, only a couple of weeks ago, when we had lunch with them, they gave us some framed lyrics of Ian’s and so on to say thank you. They gave really great and valid script notes, so they were massively important. It can’t be underestimated. We never would have gotten that level and that kind of depth, really feeling like you got inside the family.
CS: Was his son Baxter also involved in that?
Serkis: Yeah, yeah.
Whitecross: I mean, he was amazing. They were an incredible resource all the way through, so it wasn’t just that Paul interviewed them for a few days and then just started writing the script. We kept on going back to them, so once I became involved, we’d go out drinking with Baxter, because that’s the way to get the best out of him, and he’d be there talking but as we got closer and closer to deciding what kind of film we were making or what scenes we were missing, we knew that we’d need a scene that was along these lines. We kept on really being able to pinpoint what we needed and we’d say, “Did anything like this ever happen?” or “What if this had happened?” He was hilarious because his nickname amongst the band was “Baxagerration.” He makes up stories left, right and center, just like his father, and that’s why we stuck in that line at the beginning, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” It’s not a cop-out at all. That is kind of the family ethos. They change the story every time they tell it, so we’d sit down with him and go, “We’ve decided the film’s kind of about the public Ian versus his private persona or vice versa. Do those sides of his personality ever clash?” And he’d go, “Not really. I suppose there was that Christmas when he turned up one day and spiked the Christmas turkey of my stepdad and he collapsed and started crying.” And we were like, “Perfect, we’ll get that in.” So that was really great…
CS: So it didn’t matter if it was true or not, just that it was a great story?
Whitecross: Especially because there were things that would clearly be true because it would be witnesses by ten people, but each one of them would have a different take on it. Every single person had been at that moment where they took the picture of Ian and Baxter in front of the shops for the front cover of the album, so after a while you go, “Listen, no one really remembers any more, and they’re all making it up so let’s just do our version.”
Serkis: Just before the very first opening number, “Billericay Dicky,” just as I was about to start singing, Sophie, Ian’s widow, came up and said “Hold up a sec” and came up with Paul on stage and she undid my scarf and said, “No, no, no, Ian would never have knotted his scarf like that” and she reknotted it for me. It was a very particular way, so they were very active on set, too.
CS: How did you prepare to get into this role? I’ve spoke with Michael Sheen quite a bit and he’s saying that he never wants to do an impression, he wants to be an actor and capture the essence. Did you have the same mindset going in or did you feel that you had do a little bit more?
Serkis: Yeah, for instance the way of approaching songs… I mean, obviously you do research, you watch footage and so on, and Michael’s absolutely right. Impersonation only gets you so far, and then if it’s just about mimicry then it’s a very dry and unemotionally connected performance I think. It’s always about putting a part of your own life under that microscope, and there’s lots of very personal… there’s a lot of me and my personal (almost under his breath) complexities in that part. And even things like performing all of the songs and so on. I know that Ian wouldn’t have been that happy if someone had just stood up and tried to just copy him. I think he would have wanted to… it was part of my approach to doing the songs that I wanted to be able to deliver my own interpretations of those songs in the moment and live and in a visceral way, which is how I would perform them. There are certain tics and things obviously that were helpful to Ian’s character, but equally, it was having the freedom to bust loose with all of that stuff and really connect with the audience in the room.
CS: One of the coolest things while watching the credits was when Chas Jankel’s name came up as doing the music. I had no idea the Blockheads were still actively playing together. How did it come about that they were just as involved in the movie as the family?
Whitecross: It really came from the family actually, because once they were on board, they were our connection to Chas and then Chas was still the ringleader of the Blockheads. They don’t tour as a complete group anymore, because they’ve fallen out and there’s bad blood over the years, and Davey Payne, who is the saxophonist who used to go around head-butting people as he does in the film, I think for different reasons, he doesn’t tour with them anymore. Miraculously, down to Chas, down to the family, even Neil who is our music supervisor, somehow managed to get them in the same room as me and Andy two days without killing each other, and it was amazing, it was fantastic.
Serkis: And Chas did say that it was the best that they’ve ever recorded that stuff in years and it had a real kind of vibrancy. A lot of it was down to the fact that they were being asked to do something, which was not just to play the songs again and rerecord them, but play them with a particular direction, because we obviously used those songs dramatically. We were asking for them to go against the grain of how they would normally record some of those songs, particularly with a song like “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” where it wasn’t just about recreating their hit single. It was about Ian’s state of mind, about him imploding after failing to deal with the success of “New Boots and Panties” and then we used that in the film where he’s actually at the bottom of the pool going slightly crazy. Again, they all had their own interpretations of Ian and the way that they related to him, and Chas has been an amazing… he wrote all the score as well… and all the jazz stuff, and I played sax on all the jazz interludes, and I started playing with him live now.
CS: I wanted to ask about that, because there was a movie about The Germs a few years ago (“What We Do is Secret”) and the actor who played the singer who died Darby Crash (Shane West) actually toured with them, and I was curious if you’ve since done any lives shows with the Blockheads?
Serkis: I have, yeah. They have a number of people who drop in and guest for them–Phil Jupitus and Suggs from Madness–but they have said “Will you come and do stuff?” and I’ve been down there. Towards Christmas, I did the Electric Ballroom in Camden, and as I say, with Chas, we’ve started to play stuff. (You can see Andy performing with the Blockheads here)
CS: Matt, as someone who has worked so closely with Michael Winterbottom so much over the years, when you took on this movie, how important was it to create your own visual identity? Obviously, there are connections to “24 Hour Party People” in terms of having the same guy doing the title animation.
Whitecross: I think when you’re going into any project, you try to look at it in the same terms. I think there are obviously influences from many different films, including from Michael’s films. He’s been a huge influence on my life in general, but I would say that more than in the visual aesthetic of this film and more than any one quality of one film. We tried to avoid going back to any particular film. We didn’t watch many films together. We just referenced them and everybody knew, so we might reference “8 1⁄2” or “All that Jazz” and not go and say, “Let’s watch that scene and get the same shot.” It’s more kind of as a mood-setter for everyone in the room so we’re all on the same page. In terms of Michael’s influence, there’s much more that I admire his ethos and he always has complete integrity when he goes into a project, and each project is very different from the last. He’s always influenced by something very passionate inside him and not about the bottom dollar. It’s never about money, it’s always something unusual and something different than you expect from him. For me, it was a real challenge. I really felt like I was out of my element when I was going into this project and I think that’s a good thing. I think that’s what he seems to do each time, without putting words into his mouth. He’s done a science fiction film, so next film is going to be a Western or a prison movie and that’s amazing.
CS: I don’t really know what the vibe about the Blockheads is in England now, but since the movie has opened there, is there any kind of resurgence going on?
Serkis: There is a bit of a resurgence with Ian’s music, and I think that because it does chime in with the 10th Anniversary of his death, you’re hearing it on the radio, you’re hearing him in football settings. Some one said that “Reasons to be Cheerful” was playing at Tottenham I think, can’t remember. There is sort of a mini-revival and it is time. It’s interesting, politically what’s going on at the moment, the voice of the outsider and the voice of dissent is coming back into writing I think, particularly in theater actually. People are finding their teeth, and it seems to me that this is a perfect time for a Renaissance of Ian’s music because we need voices out there that are going to challenge what is going on, and that kind of level of uniqueness is something that we really haven’t had up until this point. I think people are very, very interested in what he’s got to say again.
CS: I have to ask you about whether you’ve heard anything more about when they might start shooting “The Hobbit” movies, since it seems so on and off these days.
Serkis: It will happen at some point, yeah. (laughs)
CS: Have you been down to New Zealand to make sure your sensor suit still fits or anything like that?
Serkis: I’m between now and then. There’s a number of things that I’m involved in. This film was very much a part of a particular kind of transitional phase for me really, because up until that point, I’d been directing video games and short films and theater, but now I’ve set up a production company and with a producer friend of mine, we’ve got a slate of films we’re putting together. I’m also setting up a performance capture environment in the UK, so that’s sort of laying down some construction…
CS: So you’re still very involved with the performance capture you’ve done for Peter Jackson?
Serkis: Oh, very much so. I’m passionate about it. I think it’s an amazing tool and part of my quest is to make it more affordable and more accessible to younger aspirant filmmakers who might want to use it, because it’s definitely not going to go away. It’s definitely going to become part of the filmmaker’s toolkit and I want it to be more accessible and understood in the education about it.
Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is currently playing on most cable providers’ On Demand, but if you happen to live in New York City, you can catch it theatrically at the Tribeca Cinemas on Laight Street, starting Wednesday May 5. You can see the full schedule here. You can also read what Mat Whitecross said about some of his other potential projects here.