15 January 2010

Whose Line Is It Anyway?

Musicals have been popular enough for decades, but the musical biopic is an entirely different beast. The first biopic of a musician was 1946's The Jolson Story, but it's since the success of Ray and Walk The Line that the film industry has been tripping over itself to make similar stories about musical legends. This week I went to see Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, and also caught up with one of the much loved documentaries of last year, Anvil! The Story of Anvil.

As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.

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Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is based on the life of Ian Dury, the founder of the punk-rock scene in 1970s Britain. Dury, played by Andy Serkis, was stricken with polio at an early age and was very much at a disadvantage in the early stages of his career on account of his disability and his unique performances. The film charts his rise to fame, and the effect his abrasive personality has on his wife and children. The spark has gone from his marriage as he turns to a younger woman, Denise, and his son feels neglected by his largely absent dad, but Dury is largely concerned with the stratospheric rise of his band, the Blockheads.

If there's an obvious statement to make about Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, it's that Andy Serkis is just terrific in this role. He embodies the impresario in Dury perfectly, but it's also a very personal performance. Someone who's never heard of Dury or his music before seeing this film could very well come out of it feeling that they really know the guy. You might not like him, but you get a great sense of his character. I say that because I didn't know much about Dury except that I liked a couple of Blockheads songs. Naomie Harris and Bill Milner are typically reliable as Dury's mistress and son respectively, with Milner soldiering through the latter half of the film with the worst haircut worn by an actor since his screen-dad David Morrissey in last year's Is Anybody There? Outside of the performances though, it's a shame that this doesn't really leave much of an impression.

Music biopics these days, to quote Johnny Cash, walk the line. They always follow a massively familiar narrative structure, even though they're often about very different people's lives. I reviewed Nowhere Boy a few weeks ago, and was interested to learn when seeing this that both John Lennon and Ian Dury had nightmares about their childhood, handily illuminating the audience about their back story. It's a sub-genre in danger of becoming over-saturated now, and if I see that shot of a singer on stage in silhouette with an audience clapping before him, I think I may scream. The only real innovation here is the inclusion of Dury telling an audience about the story of his life, as a framing device which might have been more effective if given a little more prominence. When biopics are so similar, they can only be as interesting as the person they're about. Thankfully, Ian Dury was very interesting, so even though the script goes through the motions, it scrapes through and is actually fairly enjoyable.

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll should be remembered for Andy Serkis' tour de force performance- he's a terrific actor who ought to be getting more recognition for his actual on-screen roles than for putting on a motion-capture suit to play Gollum or King Kong. His Gollum was good, of course, and will be again when The Hobbit comes out, I'm sure. But here, he is just dazzling, gleefully showboating his way through Dury's life, on stage and off. The script is burdened by familiarity and by a bizarre sort of grimy mawkishness about its subject, but it's the performances that make this worth watching. Awards for Serkis, please!

When I went home after watching Serkis tell the audience never to let the truth get in the way of a good story, I caught up with Anvil! The Story of Anvil, a documentary about a Canadian metal band trying to make it in the music business. The unusual thing about the titular band is that they've actually been around for 30 years, playing gigs alongside Bon Jovi and Whitesnake at the prime of their career. For frontman Steve "Lips" Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner, the band is a labour of love, and the film follows the production of their thirteenth album, "This Is Thirteen." Record companies don't seem to appreciate them, promoters don't reach their audience and Anvil goes through a hell of a lot as they continue their search for fame and recognition.

Yes, it's real. The drummer might have the same name as the director of This Is Spinal Tap, a film this shares more than a few similarities with, but Anvil is a real band. I knew that in advance of watching it, but I have to wonder if I would have believed it otherwise. Anvil! The Story of Anvil is a very funny film, but it's even funnier when you know it's real. But more than that, it's the best type of documentary- the type that has a real appreciation of its subject. The director is a long-time Anvil roadie, Sacha Gervasi, and he never patronises the band or makes them figures of fun. At the same time, he's not afraid to show their bad days, and that's where most of the hilarity comes from. The band is horribly mismanaged, frequently missing trains on their way to gigs and not getting paid as a result. Furthermore, Robb is given to quite Spinal Tap-like interactions, best shown in the scene where a lawyer and fan of the band tries to point out how terrible their management is.

But as I said, the film isn't taking the piss out of Lipps and Robb. Lipps in particular is very passionate about the band, and even though I largely hate metal music, I really found myself rooting for them because Gervasi gets under their skin so well. The whole thing is oddly inspiring, with these 50-something rockers still soldiering on. Gervasi is never overly flattering or self-indulgent, and the result is a refreshingly honest documentary. Anvil! The Story of Anvil is by equal turns heartwarming and hilarious, but it also manages to be an effective appraisal of the cutthroat music industry. It's also heartening to know that the success and critical acclaim for this film has finally given Anvil some recognition and high-profile gigs, and this stands as a charming tribute to their struggle.

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Music isn't exactly my field of expertise, so if you have any comments on Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll or Anvil! The Story of Anvil, why not share them below?

Vampires and music are fairly reasonable links, and there's another to follow in the next post, as I take on double doomsday in the form of The Road and The Book of Eli.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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