December 2, 2021

Film Review: Svengali – new British music comedy based on Youtube series

Don’t be a suit be a dude

Jonny Owen, writer, star and producer of Svengali was in a Britpop band in the Nineties and knows all about the music business. He has the contacts too and in 2010 he made an online comedy series that went viral on Youtube. Now with director John Hardwick he has made a Britcom with the same characters about a man who drops everything to follow his dream.

Owen plays Dixie, who wants to manage the greatest band in the world, to be a svengali in the mould of Brian Epstein or Malcolm McLaren. Huw Stephens and Alan McGee are just two of the famous faces cameoing in this examination of wish-fulfillment and discovery of what really matters in life.

After the impressive titles by Root which mimic the covers of hand-written mix tapes, the scene is set with a voice-over that tells us what’s what (Dixie lives in Wales with his girlfriend) and what he would like to be (manager of a band in London). Owen plays Dixie, who could never be characterised as an intellectual. This is drummed into us by a script that constantly refers to him disparagingly. The film starts when he has found a band called The Prems that he believes will be the greatest in the world. At this stage he has only heard a recording online, but that is enough for him to throw in his job and move with his girlfriend Shell (Owen’s real-life partner Vicky McClure) to London. He doesn’t even speak to the band until he’s rented a flat from an obnoxious Katy Brand. Svengali is not rooted in realism – it only takes the mention of a pack of beers to persuade the band to let him become their manager. Not bad for someone whose only previous job in music was being a postman.

This lack of grounding continues when it becomes clear that Dixie’s plan for success is no more than mention the band to an old school friend who is in the music biz. Unfortunately Horsey, played by Roger Evans, makes it clear that the description friend belongs in the past, so Dixie is on his own.

The film plays up the rural bumpkin comes to the city in scenes that are hard to believe – as are the scenes when Dixie returns home to Wales and utilises an unusual form of taxi.  Much appears to have been improvised and Owen has confirmed that he would tell the actors where the scene had to get to and allow them to get there how they liked.

The cameos continue with Martin Freeman playing Don, the owner of a Mod record shop. He, or rather his coloured sunglasses, become the focus of all the scenes they are in. Some of The Prem’s behaviour in the film could have been inspired by the difficulties within The Libertines and Carl Barat also pops up briefly. The soundtrack is enjoyable, including the Stone Roses and The Fall.

The trouble with making a film about the greatest band in the world is their music has to be pretty amazing. Or, as here, you make a decision to fade the whenever they start to play. We see them in their first live session at the BBC, but don’t hear the music that is setting the world on fire.

The plot rolls on relentlessly, difficulties popping up and being overcome with apparent ease. Loan sharks and homelessness both feature, but are given a spin which renders them harmless. They become just another plot device with none of the horror and misery which they engender in real life.

Owen is an enthusiastic performer and gives the film an infectious warmth that draws you in.  It almost allows you to forgive the more unlikely elements of the script.

Svengali is available to download and in cinemas already and will be out of DVD and Blu-ray on April 7th.

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