Benny & Jolene review

A folk duo embark on an ill-fated tour in British comedy drama, Benny & Jolene. Here's Ryan's review of a disappointing film...

As long as there are musicians, there’ll be managers and producers promising gigs, audiences, record deals and huge stardom. The fickleness of fame and the music industry have been part and parcel of movies as varied as This Is Spinal Tap, The Fabulous Stains and Anvil! The Story Of Anvil, and British comedy drama Benny & Jolene cuts a similar cautionary groove.

The title’s teen folk duo (respectively, Submarine’s Craig Roberts and Fresh Meat’s Charlotte Ritchie) are precisely one album and one single into a new record deal, and they appear to be on the cusp of breakthrough success: they have an appearance booked on ITV’s This Morning, and there’s a festival gig booked to mark the launch of their debut LP.

In reality, however, things are falling apart. Benny’s smitten by Jolene, who is utterly oblivious to the depth of his affection. Worse, pushy PR consultant Nadia (This Is England’s Rosamund Hanson) and various inept record company managers want to steer the pair away from their folk roots and towards a more mainstream sound akin to Cheryl Cole’s solo pop efforts. As Benny and Jolene hit the road for what should be their triumphant gig at a festival in Wales, black clouds loom on the horizon.

Despite the best efforts of the two leads and first-time writer and director Jamie Adams, Benny & Jolene never quite convinces as a drama or comedy. Charlotte Ritchie has a decent singing voice (she’s even formed a folk duo with her brother according to the press notes), but Craig Roberts is clearly no musician – his fingers don’t form chords in the rare instances we see them gig together, and his voice is as flat as a rain-drenched picnic.

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Adams goes for a low-fi style of filming that’s part Spinal Tap rockumentary, part American mumblecore indie drama: the editing’s choppy, the camera is self-consciously slow to pull focus. This wouldn’t ordinarily be a criticism, but Benny & Jolene doesn’t so much feel cute, realistic and hand-crafted as rushed, confused and choppy.

It’s the lack of verisimilitude that is the film’s fatal flaw – even more so than its lack of forward momentum or obvious laughs. We never once see Benny or Jolene talk or act like musicians. They don’t sit and practise guitar during their long stretches on the road. They rarely – other than in one key scene – jot down thoughts as potential lyrics, and they never talk about their shared musical interests. Even an outfit as confused as Spinal Tap talked excitedly about their favourite guitars (“Don’t point, even”), their ill-thought-out custom amps, or their musical heroes (such as the famous moment where they visit Elvis’s grave).

Yet Benny & Jolene does contain a few Spinal Tap moments. There’s an awkward album cover unveiling at a deserted record shop. There are dreadful, ill-attended gigs in the middle of nowhere, abortive festival tours, and tone-deaf changes in musical direction. None of it quite stacks up, because again, Benny and Jolene simply don’t convince as musicians.

This all sounds terribly harsh, and it’s no certainly fun to write, given the film’s good-natured tone and clear indie status. So to balance things out, here are some positives: Craig Roberts may not convince as a folk guitarist, but he’s a wonderful actor, with a genuine screen presence that is his alone – he can also act shell shocked better than any young British actor in recent memory. Charlotte Ritchie’s great as the band’s kooky yet somewhat vain teen lead singer (who dresses like Rumours-era Mick Fleetwood for some reason). Meanwhile, the rest of the cast – including Dolly Wells as Jolene’s clingy, Nissan Micra-driving mother – work diligently with the apparently improv-heavy script.

Unfortunately, the improv – if it is indeed improv – also cause Benny & Jolene to come unstuck. The best improvised moments in movies are funny because they sound aimless, natural and faltering like real-life conversations. But they still need to contain some wry observation, some sing-song piece of wordplay, or a spontaneous insight into a character’s way of thinking.

Instead, too many of Benny & Jolene’s conversations simply bimble on without purpose. One scene, involving the failed attempt to put up a tent in a caravan park, goes on for far too long, the actors involved trading off-the-cuff insults to no particular effect. In another scene, two characters talk at length about something we saw happen only two minutes earlier.

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There are glimmers of invention here and there, though. The hideous boredom of tour bus life is astutely captured, as is the punishing lack of glamour found at the bottom end of the music industry food chain. A scene which references Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues video with its black marker on white boards, stands as a rare and touching reference to Benny and Jolene’s shared love of music and each other.

Had Benny & Jolene contained more of these moments and less filler, it could have been a rare example of a British rockumentary romance, instead of a meandering ballad with no direction home.

Benny & Jolene is out in UK cinemas now.

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2 out of 5