Anyone who listens to our podcasts will know there’s a running joke where I’ll always mention that I go year-on-year to the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Me and several friends make our way up there and spend a week drinking lots, sleeping very little, and watching films from the crack of dawn to late in the evening. In many ways, it’s the best way to watch films; you’re much more forgiving when you go the cinema once a week, whereas you quickly know whether something’s up to scratch when you’ve had five hours sleep and your head’s pounding.
With 2013’s festival, there were plenty of films that were a decent watch, but I was still waiting for something that I could mention to my friends back home, that I would remember once I walked out the cinema and not forget about a day later. On a Saturday afternoon I went to watch an as then unknown film called Svengali. It was tipped as one of the big names of the festival, nominated for the Michael Powell award. Having read the write up (a comedy set in the British music industry with performances from Vicky McClure, Martin Freeman, and Matt Berry), I bought my ticket – plus a very large coke – and gave it a go.
Svengali introduces us to Dixie (Jonny Owen), who leaves his quiet Welsh village, where everyone knows everyone, and moves to London. His plan? To manage the internet’s next big band, The Premature Congratulations, and become the new Brian Epstein. It’s the familiar fish-out-of-water scenario, the kind of story that British comedies rely on, but instead of re-treading familiar gags, making you care about a character because they’re crying, stood outside in the rubbish weather, every one of Svengali’s jokes hits the mark and is, like its lead role, hand-on-heart sincere.
If there is any justice, then Dixie will be known as one of the great British cult comedy heroes, up there with the likes of Richard E. Grant’s Withnail and Steve Coogan’s portrayal of Tony Wilson. There’s a risk that Dixie could have been a one trick pony, doing the same joke over and over – catching the cynical industry moguls off-guard with his boundless energy and shopping bag full of cassette tapes – but Owen (who wrote and produced the film) has fleshed out his leading role, making him endearing throughout. Dixie is played for laughs, still living in the world of sixties Mod culture, taking every insult that is fired his way and carrying on regardless, but on top of this you have him trying to convince girlfriend Shell (Vicky McClure) that she is top of his list, not the band, as well as travelling backwards and forwards to Wales to visit his father (moving, understated scenes with the late Brian Hibbard of The Flying Pickets).
Vicky McClure, known for her tough roles in This is England, Broadchurch and Line of Duty, tries her hand at comedy as Dixie’s other half. Some of Svengali’s funniest moments are when Shell gets dragged into Dixie’s attempts to get his band signed, or when Dixie and Shell get to spend time together and have a laugh. Female characters in British comedies tend to be adorable, safely take her home to meet your mother-type roles; not all that demanding, acting-wise. With Svengali, Shell loves her man, supporting him as much as she can, but she has her limits. A huge amount of screen time centres on Dixie and Shell; whether their relationship can survive when the band begins to take off. The pair’s relationship is fiery, Shell having a smart answer for everything. Owen and McClure are a perfect pair; many couples who watch the film will be thinking, “He does that!” or “She’s said that!”
Part of the British comedy formula is to throw in numerous cameos from famous actors and celebrities. Svengali does the same thing, but whereas with a lot of comedies the appearances are hit or miss, everyone here gives first-rate performances. Martin Freeman, filming whilst on a break from making The Hobbit, fires one razor-sharp put down after another at Dixie, and while he might only be on screen for a few minutes, Freeman’s appearance is one of Svengali’s many highlights. The IT Crowd’s Matt Berry gives a brilliantly eccentric performance as the manager of a record company, putting the fear of God into his employees whilst wearing a pair of brightly coloured swim shorts. Biggest surprise of all is Oasis and Primal Scream’s manager Alan McGee being so gifted at comedy. McGee looks like he had a great time filming his scenes, all he has to do is walk on screen, look baffled, and you start laughing.
Instead of showing London as this bleak, grey city, Svengali’s cinematographer, Catherine Derry, gives us busy streets, shop fronts of assorted colours, and cobbled back roads. The London in Svengali feels like a buzzing, quirky place. It is not until things turn sour for Dixie that the visuals change, giving us wideshots of Dixie wandering through dimly lit streets and concrete buildings.
There are several convenient twists used to push the narrative along, which, if this were any other film, you would roll your eyes and say that this doesn’t happen in real life. The world of Svengali isn’t set in real life, it’s set in the world of rock ‘n’ roll, where absurd antics, bizarre coincidences and bad behaviour are the everyday norm. Dixie’s flukes and lucky breaks are part and parcel of the film’s spot on humour and makes Svengali’s glimpse into the world of the British music industry feel even more authentic.
Film soundtracks are usually an excuse for studios and distributors to make more money; a song is picked to accompany a scene, but doesn’t add anything to it. The music in Svengali is a history of rock ‘n’ roll, starting off in the fifties and ending up in the present day. You have the influential bands, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Stone Roses, The Libertines, but also emerging acts, on the playlists of 6 Music and Radio 1’s Huw Stephens, such as Third Party, The Broken Vinyl Club, and Keys. All of the tracks stand head-and-shoulders with each other, there is no filler here. Every song deserves its place in the film, either giving London that outlandish, anything-can-happen vibe of the sixties as Dixie first arrives in the capital, such as Georgie Fame’s Somebody Stole My Thunder and Miles Kane’s The Responsible, or to take the pace down a notch, making already poignant scenes, where Dixie hits rock bottom, even more touching; songs such as Big Star’s I’m In Love With A Girl or Mott The Hoople’s Sea Diver.
Svengali does not mock the British music industry quite like Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People; it’s a tongue-in-cheek look at the moguls, whereas Winterbottom’s agenda was to show the industry warts-and-all and let the viewer be the judge. Owen’s message to record labels is that it’s not about having Simon Cowell on speed dial, or signing musicians that are clones of the current headline-grabbing band, it is first and foremost about the talent, the music.
Jonny Owen and director John Hardwick have come up with a comedy that never fails to be funny. You will leave the cinema with a smile on your face and a rock star strut, thanks to an impossible-not-to-like cast, and a script from Owen that gets the shifts in humour, poignancy, and warmth all absolutely right.
4 out of 5
Svengali is released in selected cinemas on Friday 21 March, and is available to own on Blu-Ray and DVD from Monday 7th April.