Svengali review: ‘A feel-good British comedy’

Posted on 22 August 2014
By George Anthony Heron
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There have been a plethora of music-based films this year, two of which are of a particularly high quality, Inside Llewyn Davis and Frank. They explore different themes within the music like mental illness and the attempt to triumph despite mediocrity of talent. This film has no live music in it but is no less successful.

A Svengali is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as a “person who exercises a controlling or mesmeric influence on another, especially for a sinister purpose”. It is also a name applied to managers of famous bands, someone who has an eye for talent with the connections to generate a lot of money as a result. The latter definition applies and is a deserved money-spinner in its own right.

The project commenced gestation back in 2009, when Jonny Owen (Being Human, My Family) had an idea to adapt the true story of Dixie, a Welsh music lover who wanted to manage his own band. His perseverance and belief has led to it from being a short on YouTube to a fully-fledged movie with an all-star cast.

I have to admit that the omens didn’t appear to bode well at first. Jonny, who plays Dixie, comes across in the first few minutes as annoyingly eccentric with a cringe-worthy voiceover narrative that gave me doubts as to whether he could carry the whole film. These doubts quickly faded when I realised that I felt like I was watching real people interacting with one another. Shell (Vicky Mclure, This Is England) and Dixie have such a believable relationship which is conveyed so subtly with something as simple as a look and the way they talk to one another. You really start to care for this couple and want them to succeed.

This is a tremendous performance by Jonny, combining realism and slapstick to great effect. Adding a Welsh tinge to a project appears to have a magic effect. Last year’s videogame of the year for me was a Japanese RPG called Ni No Kuni. Part of the localisation involved using a Welsh actor for one of the main roles, which gave the character a unique and entertaining slant. The amiable tones of the Welsh accent must lend itself very well to humour.

A juxtaposition is apparent between the realism of the principal characters and the celebrity of the supporting cast. You’ve got Martin Freeman (Need I tell you what he’s been in?), Morwenna Banks (Catterick), Michael Smiley (Spaced, Kill List) and Alan McGee, a Svengali himself who makes a memorable appearance. But the best star appearance of the show has to go to Matt Berry. He is only in a couple of scenes but had me in stitches as the record label boss who refused to use the name of his rivals. Always a sign of quality when Matt’s around.

Special comment must be set aside for the script, written by Owen himself. At 93 minutes, it’s the perfect length and does not drag in the slightest. This is not a complex tale and is the true definition of a feel-good movie. This film knows what it is and plays to its strengths. It confidently tackles the subjects of life’s priorities and the bitchiness of the music industry, weaving it all together into a heart-warming comedy.

The more I think about this film, the more I like it. It’ll be interesting to see what Jonny Owen comes up with next.

After the screening at FACT, Alan Mcgee had a Q&A with the real Dixie Dean in tow. Mcgee was happy to talk about his experience in the industry managing bands like Oasis, Primal Scream, Jesus and the Mary Chain and how these experiences were conveyed in the film. Dixie made plenty of amusing quips just like his on-screen version. A most enjoyable evening.

I do have one criticism about the film though – how can you have a main character called Dixie Dean and then have no mention at all about a certain Grand Old Team?!

Svengali was screened at FACT as part of a special event that included a Q&A session with music industry legend Alan McGee on 20th August. You can find out what else is coming up at FACT via the following link: http://bit.ly/1uSt7Gz