Submarine star Craig Roberts and Fresh Meat actress Charlotte Ritchie are the titular folk-duo in this intermittently amusing music mockumentary.
Folk musicians Benny (Roberts) and Jolene (Ritchie) have been friends since she rescued him from drowning (in the shallow end of the pool) in secondary school. They are about to release a new album of their traditional folk music, but everything is about to change. Their hapless manager (Keiron Self) has got them onto morning television shows, where Benny is obviously terrified at the prospect of stardom and Jolene naively enthusiastic, but making a commercial breakthrough means changing their sound at the behest of their new record label; whose instructions are relayed via PR guru Nadia (Rosamund Hanson), instructions which are always ‘more poppy and more sexy’. Jolene’s journalist mother Rosamund (Dolly Wells) is aghast at Jolene’s explicit lyrics when she attempts to follow this directive, but her horror is nothing compared to Benny’s as Jolene tramples on their friendship.
Benny & Jolene has a certain endearing charm due to its obvious shoestring budget and semi-improvisatory feel. But that’s not enough to carry a film for 90 minutes. Luckily Roberts, Ritchie, Wells and Self are all on fine form, with Roberts’ imploding shy Benny a world away from his self-confident alienated teen in Submarine, and Wells’ wise mother a warm presence. Self also impresses as the inept band manager who is bullied by record label men and TV line producers with equal contempt. Hanson, however, is largely reprising her performance as Warwick Davis’ moronic PA in Life’s Too Short, and isn’t asked to flesh out her character. More worryingly the music mockumentary set-up; that we’re going to follow the inevitable selling-out of Benny & Jolene; is haphazardly abandoned to focus instead on the angst of Benny’s unrequited love for Jolene.
Benny & Jolene has been pitched as somewhere between Spinal Tap and pre-Annie Hall Woody Allen, but it runs out of comic invention startlingly quickly. Benny gets pushed into the background as Jolene is groomed for stardom, causing their musical dynamic to implode as she writes ‘poppy, sexy’ songs like the awful ‘Hard/Soft’. That song’s origin is an initially amusing but ultimately overplayed conceit, and by the end such conceits have disappeared into a joyless exercise in story structure. But the point of story structure for comedy from A Night at the Opera to This is The End is merely to provide a flimsy thread of logic to connect episodes of utter nonsense. You don’t watch Annie Hall to appreciate Annie’s growth in confidence as a performer and a person; you watch it to see absurdity like Marshall MacLuhan’s cameo.
Benny & Jolene’s best scenes come early on (like the duo’s encounter with a terrifically abrasive TV producer) but writer/director Jamie Adams’ feature debut betrays his television background – he runs out of cinematic ideas.