REVIEW: Svengali, A Sharp Satire Disguised as Mild Comedy

Jonny-Owen-in-a-scene-from-Svengali

Unlike Hollywood’s rags-to-riches blueprint, British comedies set in the music business have an actual edge: From The Commitments to the little seen but brilliant Good Vibrations, this very specific subgenre is as close as a sure thing as an audience can get: 24-Hour Party People, God Help the Girl, Control (not really a comedy)… there is a long list to sink your teeth into.

At first sight, Svengali seems a harmless take on the subject, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find a profoundly disenchanted view of the biz. Dixie (Jonny Owen, also the writer) is a good-natured Wales boy who falls in love with a London band, The Prems. Fiancée in hand and with just a few quid in his pocket, the young man moves to the capital to become the next George Martin.

Dixie may not be the most polished representative in town (he submits demos via cassettes), but he is scrappy and persistent. Some success comes his way, but his margin of error is miniscule: He must spend his savings on the project, control a band plagued by inner conflicts and prevent his girlfriend from bolting.

Fans of British film and TV may recognize Martin Freeman, Michael Smiley (a Ben Wheatley regular) and Matt Berry (The IT Crowd) in cameo roles, but Svengali is clearly Jonny Owen’s puppy. A likeable lead in a hostile environment that refuses to renounce his bumpkin background, Dixie doesn’t mesh well with the aloof, hipster A&R crowd, but gets along famously with the old-timers.

A couple of interesting choices indicate Jonny Owen had something more in his mind than a tale of how to make it in showbiz. We seldom hear the music of The Prems: They spend more time bickering than actually playing. Also, the publishers are more excited about the format of the demo than the content (cassettes, so hipster).

Out of context, the denouement would feel overly sweet, but Svengali does a superb job earning the audience’s good will to pull it off. Three mod prairie dogs.

Svengali is available on VOD and iTunes.

Author: Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Journalist, film critic, documentary filmmaker, and sometimes nice guy. Member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. Like horror flicks, long walks on the beach and candlelight dinners. Allergic to cats.