Dixie knows more about music than anyone else in Wales and, with his girlfriend Shell, he figures he can get to London, persuade them to let him manage them and make them massive.
Svengali is a love story – between Dixie and music and between Dixie and Shell. It’s wistful, a bit melancholy and gently persuasive and packed to the gills with great music.
Dixie (Johnny Owen) is a bit of a doofus in most areas, but he knows music and the music business. He’s got golden ears and a girlfriend named Shell (Vicki McClure) who doesn’t just put up with his idiosyncrasies but loves him for them. So when he stumbles across a YouTube video of a band called the Premature Congratulations and decides they’re the best unsigned band in the world, she’s ready to go to London with him based on the hope that he can persuade them to let him manage them.
Svengali is the story of how he fights for the Prems (as they come to be known) and almost loses everything in his life that’s good before coming to his senses.
It’s a story we’ve seen before, but Owen’s script is both sweet and earnest and quietly subverts its clichés by completely ignoring the possibility of irony.
As Dixie runs up payday loans and hustles jobs to keep the wold from the door while he tries to flog the band, we meet several just-a-bit-off-center characters who feel like they could really be from the various forms of the music biz. There’s record store owner Don (Martin Freeman), who’s stuck in the Mods and Rockers sixties (he’s a Mod); there’s the music biz veteran Alan McGee (the real deal, playing himself); the posh music biz hipster, Brian (Roger Evans), who’s from Dixie’s hometown but is now too good for him, and Francine (Morwena Banks), the chic but non-nonsense record company executive – just to name a few.
There are the members of the band, too – four different personality types that somehow work well together – the most recognizable here being Tommy (Michael Socha), the soulful one.
McClure’s Shell is the ultimate supportive girlfriend right up until the moment she’s not – and for good reason, though it takes Dixie a while to work that out.
Director John Hardwick and Owen’s soulful performance keep Svengali from drifting away – it’s slight, but not quite that slight thanks to them.
Music by Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Mott the Hoople, The Stone Roses, The High Numbers and more add a level of authenticity that also adds to the film’s atmosphere.
In the end, Dixie has a choice to make and he chooses wisely. That keeps Svengali from tipping over and lands it nicely on the side of the angels. It’s not #1 with a bullet, but it is comfortably in the upper middle of the charts.
Final Grade: B-