Folk music is having a revival. Once confined to the slipshod back rooms of taverns and characterised by anachronistic sentiments and lyrics, the genre has witnessed a popularisation and modernisation that has propelled it to the forefront of musical acclaim. This revival has not gone unnoticed by the film industry. As folk music continues to grow and expand, more films are exploring the systoles and diastoles of the genre. The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) is a recent attempt to show the hardships and austere realities of life as a folk singer.
Benny & Jolene approaches the genre from a slightly different angle in focusing on the journey of two young folk singers that are courted and exploited by the music business in an attempt to drive their folksy charm into the mainstream. The film’s narrative is simple: a recent number one hit has made the Benny (Craig Roberts) and Jolene (Charlotte Ritchie) an overnight success and there seems to be an endless queue of music moguls waiting to cash in on their newfound fame. Initially excited by the attention, the pair soon realise that the never-ending line of sycophants may not have their best intentions in mind and, together with their unremittingly incompetent manager (played by Rosamund Hanson), soon discover that success is still a very subjective term.
The film produces some memorable performances, particularly from the leads. The young cast excellently portray the insecurity, self-doubt and awkwardness that epitomises adolescent love and existence. At the same time, the performances maintain a degree of humour, making characters relatable and likeable. A scene occurring mid-way through the film that depicts the musicians’ reaction to reviews of their first album sees them scorn at accusations of being derivative. This is an ironic choice of words from the film’s writer, Jamie Adams, given the unashamedly imitative dialogue that provides most of the film’s humour. It would be an understatement to say that the film is evocative of Ricky Gervais’ style of comedy. One particular scene where Benny argues that he isn’t gay is eerily similar to Gervais’ David Brent in The Office (2001-2003). Using cringe-inducing, awkward and politically incorrect humour is commonplace, particularly in British cinema and television, but Benny & Jolene feels too similar to Gervais’ direction and the dialogue is often indistinguishable from that found in Gervais’ and Merchant’s many other film and television outputs. Even some of the cast are drawn from Gervais’ work; Rosamund Hanson’s Nadia is almost an exact replica of her character Cheryl in Life’s Too Short (2011-2013). Generally traditional in style, Benny & Jolene also employs a documentary camera style throughout, although it is more like a folk interpretation of This Is Spinal Tap (1984) than The Office’s fly-on-the-wall style. There are some interesting cinematographic choices in places, with the Welsh Valleys providing much of the backdrop to the touring scenes.
Benny & Jolene is amusing, warm and, despite the rather familiar demeanour, very funny. The performances are solid and convincing and the anti-establishment undertones offer a welcomed reprise from the notion that success can be quantified and denominated in monetary terms. For a film about a folk duo, there is a disappointing lack of music in the film. But it does go some way to compensate this inadequacy with a vexatious and cringe-worthy rap from Benny: “don’t worry if you’re loose hun, you’re only human and I’ve got two thumbs”. Need I say more?
Benny & Jolene is in cinemas from 6th June 2014 released by Verve