Dir: John Hardwick
A couple of films at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival have sought to take a critical look at the ridiculous, shallow, and hype-driven world of the record industry. One, The Great Hip Hop Hoax, uses the documentary form to recount an incredible story that’s both insightful and thoroughly entertaining. The other, Svengali, a new comedy from director John Hardwick and writer/star Jonny Owen, takes a broader, more slapstick approach toward satirising the music biz. The result is a decidedly mixed bag of a film.
Svengali tells the story of Dixie (Owen), a charmingly inept lad from Wales whose dream it is to find and manage the next great band. After scouring the depths of the internet, he thinks he’s hit the jackpot when he discovers The Premature Congratulations (shortened to The Prems), a young punk group with just the right cocktail of looks, talent and ego to make it to the top. Upping sticks, Dixie moves to London and, along with long-suffering girlfriend Shell (Vicky McClure), sets about doing everything he can to break The Prems into the music scene.
Originally appearing in 2009, Svengali began life as a web series, and the scattershot nature of its plot certainly hearkens back to these humble beginnings. The major issue here is that there just isn’t enough great material to support its expansion into a feature, leading to a collection of scenes that feel disjointed and insular – fine for a five minute YouTube clip, but not for the big screen.
The self-contained nature of many of the sequences leads to a lack of narrative cohesion, and there are several vignettes and characters that end up adding little in terms of either story progression or laughs. A prime example is Martin Freeman, who shows up briefly as a record storeowner and diehard mod, but does little to justify his character’s presence aside from wearing some quite spectacular sunglasses.
In addition to the scores of music-themed jokes, Dixie’s Welshness provides an obvious, though still entertaining, target for humour, and indeed the film’s best gag comes when he’s taxied home on a friend’s horse after returning from London to the valleys. But like everything else in Svengali, there’s no subtlety to the comedy, and it lacks the wit or the absurdity of, say, Richard Ayoade’s Submarine (another very Welsh coming-of-age tale).
Svengali needn’t have offered a particularly penetrating examination of the industry it depicts, so long as it delivered a consistently engaging story that was funny throughout. Unfortunately, it doesn’t manage to succeed on either count.