Cliched but touching tale of an optimistic rock'n'roll wannabe
Now you wouldn’t want The Lancet reviewing Scrubs, right? As experts in the minutiae of scrawny indie gits scrabbling themselves famous, we could sit here all day pulling apart the clichés, inconsistencies, inaccuracies and cartoon nonsenses writ deep into Svengali, Jonny Owen’s self-penned tale of a Welsh nowhere boy’s determination to become the new Brian Epstein, and his misadventures navigating the music biz. All the A&Rs are coke-twitchy arseholes. All the label bosses are pampered dictators bawling “Get me that band by the end of the week or you’re all fired!”, (although Matt Berry’s Douglas Reynholm-style take is the film’s crowning moment). The band that wannabe manager Dixie, played by Owen himself, discovers have the shittest not-quite-funny name imaginable – The Premature Congratulations (the “Prems”). Even the Alan McGee character, played by Alan McGee, is nothing like Alan McGee – a kind of shuffling, snarly rock’n’roll benefactor without an ounce of McGee’s real-life personability.
The music industry of Svengali is portrayed – fairly – as manipulative, backstabbing, hype-chasing and out to suck dry and mercilessly crush the little guy. But it’s also painted as dumb, impetuous and shambolic, which underestimates the meticulous machine he’s trying to parody. But look through his 2D vision of the rock world and that’s actually what makes Svengali a deeply touching experience. The film began life as Owen’s self-made online series featuring McGee and Carl Barât, who also cameos in the movie. As we watch him relentlessly blag his band towards the big time, full of big-hearted belief, it’s clearly an autobiographical reflection of his own determination to break //Svengali// into cinemas. It’s what makes Dixie’s fracturing relationship with his girlfriend Shell (This Is England‘s Vicky McClure) the real root of the film, their mounting financial hell perhaps born from experience. We’re literally watching grass-roots ambition paying off. Martin ‘Bilbo From The Office‘ Freeman’s in it, for Christ’s sake.
The soundtrack is a canny clash of heartland indie (The Fall, The Stone Roses, Bugg, Kane, Libs) and tasteful classic mod, soul and folk-rock (Small Faces, Dexys, Mott The Hoople, Big Star) that closes with the only track by the Prems, ‘Letter Bomb’, suggesting that all of the movie’s hype and mania was over a clattery Who pastiche. But despite this, and the film’s disheartening denouement, we’re left feeling that Dixie’s – and by extension, Owens’ – wide-eyed optimism is something to emulate. Except the bit where he shoplifts NME. Put it back or pay for it, you scrote.