Though Svengali is a fun film with a few genuinely emotionally affective moments, it is difficult to predict whether or not it will be appreciated by North American viewers who – unless they have a pre-existing investment in British Rock ’n’ Roll – will probably feel like they’ve seen this kind of film before.
Svengali tells the story of Dixie (Jonny Owen), a man who leaves the safety of the small Welsh mining town he grew up in for the bright lights of London to pursue his dream of becoming a big shot band manager. A lifelong music fanatic, Dixie thinks he has struck gold when he discovers an unknown band called The Premature Congratulations on YouTube. Along with his girlfriend Michelle, played by a charming Vicky McClure (This is London, TV’s Broadchurch), Dixie sets out to find the band and offer them his management services.
Director John Hardwick (33x Around the Sun, The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, and music videos for The Arctic Monkeys and Blur) brings musical knowledge to the project, but the rural-boy-goes-to-the-big-city-to-make-a-name-for-himself plot has been done before and – arguably – it has also been done better. Svengali is at its most powerful when it deals with specifics of Dixie’s experience as a Welshman recently transplanted to London, rather than exploiting the cliché of him as a small-town man with a big dream. There is an element of authenticity and tenderness in the film’s portrayal of Wales and Dixie’s cultural heritage. It should come as no surprise that leading man Owen, who wrote and produced both the film and the original web-series it is based on, was also born and raised in Wales.
Martin Freeman (Sherlock, The Office (UK), The Hobbit trilogy) is entertaining, if a bit over-the-top, in his brief appearance as the disgruntled record shop owner Don, and UK music industry icon Alan McGee is memorable as, well, himself. As Dixie, Owen plays the well-meaning buffoon well; his character is perhaps less annoying and more charismatic than his internet series counterpart – a wise change given that an audience has to spend a full 90-minute feature with him rather than a single five minute episode. A large flaw in Svengali is the lack of on-screen chemistry between the two main leads. Dixie and Michelle come across more as platonic best-friends-forever than romantic partners, which is a bit odd (or maybe not) given that McClure and Owen met and became romantically involved while working on the film.
Still, Svengali oozes cult-classic potential. The music, in particular, stands out. Of course, a film about the music industry demands an amazing soundtrack. Featuring tracks from artists like Georgie Fame, The Libertines, and The Stone Roses (and covering seven decades of popular music), Svengali delivers the auditory goods without falling back on obvious or overused choices.
Watching Svengali isn’t going to change your life and it certainly isn’t a revolutionary piece of cinema. But in ten years, this film is going to be a favorite among music nerds and audiences who can appreciate a good dig at Coldplay.
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