Film Review: ‘Benny & Jolene’

The fickle music industry merry-go-round is lampooned once again in Jamie Adams’ funny and heartfelt debut Benny & Jolene (2014), an also-rans’ tale of two young singer-songwriters struggling to make a name for themselves in an over-saturated market. Starring Submarine’s Craig Roberts and Fresh Meat’s Charlotte Ritchie as the eponymous and affectionately hopeless folk duo, Adams’ film doesn’t offer a great deal that’s new, but does hit its comedic beats with pleasing consistency as the clueless couple are propelled towards stardom (well, a relatively high-profile gig in Wales) before having the tablecloth of fame cruelly yanked from underneath their intently-gazed shoes.

We first meet Jolene (Ritchie) and writing partner Benny (Roberts) in rehearsal for an appearance on a This Morning-style morning breakfast show, struggling to come to terms with this televisual baptism of fire. Muddling through a cringeworthy interview and mimed performance, the pair’s incompetent representation – headed up by Keiron Self’s inept manager – book their act into an apparently lucrative festival slot in deepest, darkest Wales as well as a potential sell-out gig at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium. As Jolene is pushed to ‘sex up’ her lyrics, and with Benny in turn marginalised, the two are gradually pushed apart, exacerbated further by empty promises and the spiel of PR girl Nadia (Rosamund Hanson). Will Jolene’s yearning for fame and fortune jeopardise her and Benny’s indie ideals?

Show business is a merciless beast that saps the life force of the young, only to move on to the next big thing in order to quench its insatiable thirst – this we already know. Fortunately, what Benny & Jolene offers besides is a liberal helping of gags (some, it could be conceded, funnier than others) and a genuine sense of chemistry between leads Ritchie and Roberts. The former, in just her first big screen role, is particularly impressive as the conflicted Jolene, caught between a rock and a hard place as a prescribed sexuality is forced upon her, whilst at the same time knowing that the industry has little time for two kids singing kooky love songs. This is the crux of why Adams’ film works; Benny and Jolene don’t have a great deal of talent to spare, but much like Rob Reiner’s ‘shit sandwich’-mustering, puppet show-supporting rockers Spinal Tap before them, their inadequacies only make them more endearing.

Ritchie’s innate comic physicality is another notable string to this British indie’s bow, perfectly illustrated in a scene in which she appears transfixed by an imaginary wasp (wasps?) threatening a tightly-clutched apple. And yet, for all the welcome additions to the band-on-tour formula (Laura Patch and Dolly Wells raise a smile on more than one occasion as Jolene’s mothers), Adams’ inaugural directorial effort feels like just that. If you haven’t as much as giggled in the first ten minutes then Benny & Jolene may well pass you by completely, whilst a tagged-on romance between the central pair feels like an easy of way of wrapping up ‘What comes next?’ However, for anyone who has accompanied a friend’s band from pub to pub, sharing in the highs and the lows of the gigging circuit, Adams’ road movie rings truer than most.

Daniel Green