Friday, 24 February 2017

Swing (1999)

I saw Swing more or less when it first came out on video. In the seventeen years (give or take) that have followed since I've little recollection of it beyond Alexei Sayle's turn as an initially intimidating leader of an Orangeman brass section, so I decided to track the film down again. It's only available on DVD as a region free import (from Holland I think) so that gives you an idea of just how little-seen and little-remembered Swing actually is. Initially, its status seems weird when you consider the cast involved, but watching it again you can unfortunately see why its been consigned to oblivion - 4 people (including me) list this as watched on here.

Swing affords The Full Monty star Hugo Speer and the Rochdale songbird Lisa Stansfield with their first starring role vehicle. Speer stars as Martin Luxford, a Liverpudlian chancer who, following an unwise decision to drive a getaway car for his shifty brother Liam (Brookside's Paul Usher) ends up spending two years in gaol. Whilst there, Martin learns the saxophone from a fellow inmate, a big black American fella called Jim who just happens to be played by The E Street Band's Clarence Clemons! Once released, Martin returns home to his mum and dad (Rita Tushingham and Tom Bell) and sets about going straight with the intention of forming a band ("those bloody Beatles" is the reaction he faces each time he mentions his ambition to family, friends or his probation officer) that will bring swing music to the masses once more. To get the venture off the ground, he sources a little help from the local Orange order ran by his uncle (Tom Georgeson) for a deal based on his first born being christened in the Protestant faith, a former National Front skin who played the drums for ultra right wing band Swastika, an old schoolmate who dreams of playing for arch enemies Manchester United, and his former girlfriend (Stansfield) who just so happens to have married the police officer who arrested him whilst Martin has been banged up.

Looked at in purely cynical terms it's clear that Swing hopes to emulate the success of The Commitments, but it's an ambition that is well beyond its reach. The most interesting thing about Swing is its characters and the cast chosen to play these roles, but the tepid direction lets them down at every turn. Watching it, I began to consider just how a poor choice of director can ruin a writer's vision, so imagine my surprise when I found out that the director Nick Mead was also responsible for the screenplay! (Mind you, he was also responsible for the screenplay to the Michael Caine/Roger Moore vehicle Bullseye! and I think that ought to tell you all you need to know about him) Mead - who devised the story with his producer Su Lim - resolutely fails to inject the same kind of spirit into the film that is inherent in the script itself. The contentious nature of the rag tag assortment of bandmates is never utilised and it's a grave error to allow their issues of racial and religious intolerance to go unresolved; Mead just glosses over them and they exist solely as a missed opportunity at best, or bizarre, silly comic relief at worst. It appears that he perhaps hoped that Sayle et al will have enough about them in the performance to breathe life into them, and whilst they try their best, the empty space in the script where character progression ought to exist and the poor realisation in bringing them to screen from the director means they're doomed to fail despite their best endeavours. 

They're not the only actors wasted here either; Tom Bell, seen here in the latter stages of his career before his untimely death in 2006, brings his usual quiet, noble and strong screen presence to the role but his biggest and best scene is opposite Liverpool poseur Danny McCall (of Brookside, panto and some desperate attempts at chart success fame) as Stansfield's corrupt policeman hubby - and he naturally wipes the floor with him, defying the inadequacy around him. Likewise, sax legend Clarence Clemons is something of a star attraction, but his actual role on screen (away from the fact that he provided the sax score that Speer mimes too) consists of little more than a series of dreamy cutaways in which he imparts Obi Wan Kenobi style wisdom to his protege, Martin. 

Front and centre of the film are Speer and Stansfield in their first lead acting roles. They equip themselves rather well - despite adopting scouse accents that are not natural to them - and Stansfield of course excels in the singing scenes, but the chemistry isn't exactly something that sets the world alight - and that's perhaps what was really required to lift the film above its other noticeable errors.

A musical romcom in which both the rom and the com fails and the music is always only going to appeal to a select audience means Swing fails to do just that - swing. The film's best joke perhaps lies (strangely) in the credits; 

'Five hamsters were killed in the making of this film...and if they had not moved, the staple gun would not have been used'

NB: Internet Movie Database includes Jimmy Nail in the cast list as a character named 'Arthur'; he doesn't appear in either the film or the  end credits of the film. A mistake on IMDB's part? (they neglect to include Del Henney who actually does appear!) or an example of scenes consigned to the cutting room floor? I'm leaning towards the former, I can't imagine Swing missing the opportunity of having a(nother) household name in its cast to attract audiences.

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