There are three things the British do better than anyone else; comedy, satire, and junk food. John Hardwick’s Svengali attempts to cover the first two. The dangerous amount of Walkers cheese & onion crisps and Rowntree’s Fruit Gums consumed while watching it (inadvisable, but highly recommended) speaks to my fondness for the third.
Adorable and amiable Welshman, Dixie, dreams of being a music manager, a ‘Svengali’ in the vein of Alan McGee and Tony Wilson. He moves to London with his unfailingly supportive girlfriend to manage a band he discovered on YouTube. Hardwick attempts to braid together three main narrative threads: a satire of the music business, a love story, and a small-town-boy-in-the-big-city tale, complete with the requisite archetypes including Mean, High-strung Boss and Asshole Foreign Landlady. It’s hard for me to say bad things about the film, but I also wish I had more emphatically good things to say about it.
Full disclosure: I am not cool when it comes to music. I don’t know bands, and have no idea what the kids are into these days. There are apparently quite a few clever cameos in the film, like some person from something called ‘The Libertines’, but it all went right over my head. You know how I mentioned ‘Svengalis in the vein of Alan McGee and Tony Wilson’ in the paragraph above? I had to google them for that sentence to make any sense. But even if you’re clueless and un-hip like me, you get that this is supposed to be a send-up of an industry filled with assholes. Except it isn’t – not entirely. For every asshole Dixie encounters, there is at least one very nice person who readily helps him out, or gives him a bit of encouragement. Things actually go so well for Dixie - from getting the band to make him their manager, to bringing attention to them as the next big thing - that the obstacles thrown into his path seem forced. Regardless, obstacles abound, but they end up throwing the narrative out of whack, and it becomes difficult to know where to pay attention.
At the beginning, the three narrative threads take turns pulling in and out of focus, each of them compelling and entertaining on their own, and as part of the whole. But as things start to go sideways for Dixie, both business-wise and romantically, I was unsure which loss I was supposed to dread more, mostly because Dixie seems unsure which of the two he is more upset about. Eventually, the music business thread loses steam entirely, and our focus shifts clumsily to the romantic plotline. The focus on satire is lost entirely, if it was ever meant to be satirical in the first place. There are a few odd, overplayed characters, such as Dixie’s boss, and the owners of two rival record companies, but there is no irony in the film’s portrayal of the music business. To me, it just didn’t go very far beyond saying “Here are a bunch of generally ordinary people trying to make it in an industry run by assholes.”
There needs to be irony if there is to be satire, and this film is just too earnest for that. There could have been irony in the way the music business changes Dixie – but it doesn’t change him. He never stops being his sweet, guileless self. Perhaps the film’s irony lies, then, in its title. Dixie claims to want to be a ‘Svengali’, but he is, in fact, the anti-Svengali. There is no dubious intent on his part, no manipulation of the band or anyone else around him. He is surrounded by quite a few bastard Svengali types, but he never goes over to the dark side himself.
In the same way you would pull visual focus to the most interesting element in a shot or scene, pulling the narrative focus to a more interesting internal metamorphosis on Dixie’s part would have been a lot more engaging. As I said before, it’s hard to say anything truly bad about the film, but it just doesn’t maintain its own focus well enough for me to call it a really good film.