“The only thing I’ve ever missed is a few buses,” says Ian Dury, as played by Andy Serkis, in “sex & drugs & rock & roll.” The film’s a biopic about the often decadent, sometimes tragic and altogether rocking lead singer for the Blockheads, one of the first to fuse together rap, rock, reggae and funk to become a sensation in the U.K. It’s no surprise then that Serkis doesn’t miss a trick in portraying the frontman, who’s hobbled by childhood bout with polio, but more than makes up for it with a life spent between two women — his wife (Olivia Williams) and his girlfriend (Naomie Harris) — not to mention an overindulgence on available drugs and alcohol, and a flamboyant personality that he attempts to tame in front of his young son (Bill Milner).
Although the actor, best known for suiting up in performance capture gear to portray Gollum and King Kong, underwent a considerable transformation to play Dury, equal attention is paid by director Mat Whitecross to retrofitting the traditional rock biopic, filling the film with animation, underwater musical sequences and a criss-crossing narrative that ricochets between Dury’s days of rebelling against authority in school to becoming an authority on the British scene. During the Tribeca Film Festival, Serkis and Whitecross sat down to discuss the film, the unexpected difficulties of hair in a rock movie, and I even got the “Lord of the Rings” star to talk about the studio he’s creating for motion capture.
The film unfolds almost like a collage and seems true to Dury’s passion for many artistic mediums. How important was it to have pop art blended into the film so seamlessly?
Mat Whitecross: That’s exactly what we were trying to go for, partly because he has such a kaleidoscopic life anyway, but also really because he was influenced by pop art, especially Peter Blake, who he studied under.
One of the issues with doing a low-budget film is you want to try and represent a whole era, but you don’t have the money and the size of crew to be able to do that. You can’t try and recreate ’70s Camden, so what other way can you give a new audience a flavor of those times? [The animation] felt like the most succinct way of doing it and we were lucky enough to get the great Sir Peter Blake to work on those sequences with our team.
With pop art in general, we wanted to give this film a distinctive look and it just made sense, given that art was an important part of Ian’s life, but couldn’t really be part of the script since there were too many other things to talk about. It felt like even if it’s subconscious, at least you’re getting it and then if you go back and rediscover the albums or his life and look at his work and his paintings, then it’ll all kind of click into place.
Andy, I read that you wore a caliper for months to achieve Ian’s limp. Was the physicality a place where you started for this role since it plays such a huge role in his life?
Andy Serkis: It wasn’t a place I started, no. It’s a place it was necessary to get to and get through. I started at a kind of producer/storytelling level, in terms of how to pull the whole thing together. It was a two-step process, really. It was understanding what the story was about and working with Paul [Viragh, the screenwriter] closely on the emotional core of the film and the father and son relationship — those were our starting points. The fact that we wanted to present Ian as the teller of his own story in a musical environment, that’s for me where the characterization starts. It morphed gradually into the physical preparation — obviously, the closer you get to the shoot, there were certain things you had to do, to lose weight and to work with the calipers and do all that to understand the physics of his disability and the psychology of living with it.
There’s a concert that is used as the film’s framing device — was that shot at the beginning of the production since it seems to have so much impact on what happens throughout?
MW: We wanted to do it upfront for precisely that reason, but unfortunately for scheduling reasons, primarily Andy’s hair, we couldn’t do it until the end of the shoot.
AS: It’s probably a good job actually because my voice was fucked up after that [laughs], which might’ve worked quite well.
MW: We scheduled all the scenes where he was speaking on the stage on the last day as well, so he was completely raw and ragged. We were very worried about it, but it actually gives it quite a nice fragile quality.