Benny & Jolene is micro-budget British indie does This is Spinal Tap. While not quite a mockumentary, this film covers the same fruitful territory of disastrous gigs, incompetent managers, brainless hangers-on and inter-band conflict. Yet, while Spinal Tap were a heavy metal band powered by twin engines of egotism and stupidity, Benny & Jolene are hamstrung by shyness, naivety and a total inability to speak up for themselves.
Benny (Craig Roberts) and Jolene (Charlotte Ritchie) are a two piece folk band with a surprise number one single under their belt. We meet them as they’re being awkwardly thrust into the world of the minor celebrity with an appearance on daytime TV show This Morning. The two are endearingly awkward, tripping over their words and telling stories that don’t really go anywhere, their normality in stark contrast to the tanned slickness of the presenters.
This is, unfortunately, the peak of their career. The rest of the film chronicles their undignified descent down the ladder of fame as moronic producers fiddle with their sound, tour arrangements foul up and everything collapses into a messy heap of resentment and recriminations.
Jamie Adams gives us a peek into the flipside of the music industry with his film, as we see luxury tour buses replaced with bedbug ridden camper vans, promotional events where no-one shows up and lecherous, misogynistic photographers. It all feels painfully genuine; there’s an attention to detail in the way the band move from crappy campsite to crappy campsite, bored and barely putting up with each other in close confinement. I was pleased to see the Welsh music scene getting some very accurate attention here as well, with the non-event at Spillers Records, the gig no-one pays attention to at the Chapter Arts Centre and a drizzly photoshoot at Roath Park all painfully reflecting some of my own personal experience.
There’s a ramshackle quality everything that the film just about gets away with. They’re on thin ice at times though. The odd shot is out of focus, there’s at least one glaring continuity error and some parts of Benny & Jolene look suspiciously like they might have been shot on a mobile phone. But this clumsiness is thematically appropriate. After all, the band pits themselves against against glossy perfection, arguing that it’s the rougher edges that give art its worth.
That said, the primary reason Benny & Jolene works is down to the quietly touching performances of Craig Roberts and Charlotte Ritchie. Roberts reprises the melancholy of Submarine‘s Oliver, proving himself the go-to young British actor if you want someone to morosely stand in the rain looking like a walking Morrissey lyric.
Ritchie is slightly more difficult to get a handle on, though. Jolene mingles together both an inferiority complex (she just sings the songs and can’t write them), and a growing ego (she’s pretty and marketable). There’s a nice growing tension as Jolene awkwardly tries her best to live up to the indie-queen Florence Welch persona that everyone so obviously wants her to be. We immediately recognise Benny and Jolene as round pegs being forced into square holes, and crucially, it’s difficult not to empathise with their turmoil.
The supporting roles, on the other hand, are a decidedly mixed bunch. With a shortish runtime, there’s just not enough space to develop anyone other than the eponymous leads. Rosamund Hanson’s ditzy PA girl Nadia stands out, as she’s such a cartoonish dimwit that she can’t feasibly develop. Less notable are Tom Rosenthal’s Tommy, a man with a nice jacket in lieu of a personality, and Keiron Self’s manager, neither of whom get anywhere near as much screentime as they’d need to become interesting. As for Dolly Wells and Laura Patch as Benny and Jolene’s mothers, they quickly form into a single unit to the extent that even at the end of the film I didn’t really have any idea which was the mother to which character.
The short runtime also means that the emotional development of our two leads is rather truncated. We skip forwards in time at a pretty rapid rate, meaning the two progress disarmingly quickly through loving and hating each other (and back again). Fortunately, Roberts and Ritchie are good enough to hold all this together, even though they have scant few scenes in which to convey their changing affections. This comes to a head in the finale which frankly, doesn’t really make a great deal of sense. But then, for what seems like the umpteenth time, Roberts and Ritchie pull the film out of the fire, their chemistry and charisma salvaging some oddly confusing moments.
Thankfully, despite all the questionable technical decisions and slightly stunted narrative, the film is very funny throughout. The improvised dialogue gives scenes a documentary realism and maximum awkwardness is mined from every situation. For all its flaws, Benny & Jolene is a difficult film to dislike. Partly this is due to a feeling of camaraderie between audience and character, partly because the scenarios and locations are so familiar and well-observed. and partly because it’s often really humorous.
Also, I can’t in good conscience dislike a film that soundtracks the journey to a Welsh music festival with Gruff Rhys’ Gyrru Gyrru Gyrru Gyrru.
Benny & Jolene almost entirely succeeds on the shoulders of Craig Roberts and Charlotte Ritchie, as they have genuine chemistry which saves the film's bacon.