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aka Alright Now

D: Jamie Adams / 95m

Cast: Cobie Smulders, Richard Elis, Jessica Hynes, Noel Clarke, Emily Atack, Laura Patch, Holli Dempsey, Mandeep Dhillon, Griffin Dunne

Twenty years after they were first successful, rock band The Filthy Dukes are reduced to playing working men’s clubs in small British towns. Their lead singer, Joanne Skye (Smulders), is still living the rock n’ roll life, partying hard and trading on past glories whenever she can. When her manager-cum-boyfriend, Larry (Clarke), calls it quits on their relationship, and the rest of the band call it quits too in the same evening, Joanne ends up in a pub where she meets Pete (Elis) – but it’s not the best first encounter. Afterwards, Joanne meets up with old friend, Sara (Hynes), and under the influence of copious amounts of alcohol, they decide to enrol in a marine biology course at the local university. The next day they decide to go through with their enrolment, and at the university Joanne discovers that Pete is the admissions officer. Blagging their way onto the course, they also get a dorm room, and find themselves surrounded by young women half their age. For Joanne, it’s a chance to continue being a rock chick, but a growing attachment to Pete has her re-thinking her priorities…

Sometimes, a movie maker makes enough of an impression to ensure that his other work is tracked down or taken advantage of when it surfaces. Such a movie maker is Jamie Adams, whose Black Mountain Poets (2015) showed promise even though it was uneven and inconsistent in its approach. Songbird is the second of two movies made by Adams and released in 2018, and at first it looks as if it’s going to be a spoof of a pretentious Nineties indie band, with excerpts from a dreadfully arch music video for a Filthy Dukes song that was number one for fourteen weeks(!). Alas, it’s not to be, as instead, Adams decides to concentrate on Joanne and her bullish, hyperactive behaviour. She’s a verbal bull in a china shop, a slave to the persona she created twenty years before, and perilously close to having no self-awareness at all. She’s also really, really, really difficult to connect with as a character. Thanks to Adams’ further decision to have Joanne behave like the most annoying person in a room full of annoying over-achievers, most of the movie’s first half is a chore to sit through as she displays the kind of childish, free-form expressions (both verbal and physical) that denote either someone suffering from arrested development or incipient mental health problems.

All this is – of course – meant to be funny, but thanks to Adams’ leaden direction and a script that feels largely improvised (and which, like Black Mountain Poets, Adams appears happy to go along with, no matter how laboured it is), the movie struggles through long periods of dramatic and comedic inertia before it finally begins to tease out the semblance of a crafted storyline, instead of the fractured narrative it’s adopted up until then. The jittery romance between Joanne and Pete comes to the fore, and the movie almost sighs with relief at having something more defined to focus on, and the performances improve as well, with Smulders and Elis at last able to flex their acting skills in the service of something more meaningful and emotive. It’s a long time coming, and some viewers may well have hit the Stop button, or decided to head for the pub (or anywhere) long before this, but the movie’s last half hour shows just how good it could have been if Adams had been more rigorous in his approach to the material. It’s still fairly rough around the edges, and it does seem as if everyone suddenly woke up to the fact that more effort needed to be made, but it’s the one section of the movie that succeeds by actually having something to say – and knowing, at last, how to say it.

Rating: 4/10 – shot in five days (and it shows), Songbird has a dire first hour that acts as a challenge to the viewer to keep watching, and a final half hour that rescues the movie from obtaining a much lower rating; ill-advised and sluggish, with occasional flashes of inspiration that are quickly snuffed out by the next woeful occurrence, it’s to be hoped that Adams’ next endeavour has more structure and attention to both characters and plot than this does.

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