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In 1992, a group of Benedictine monks burned up the Billboard 200 charts with their album of Gregorian chants (titled Chant), and sold nearly six million copies worldwide. In 2010, a group of rugged fishermen carved out their own anachronistic moment in pop music lore, as the copyright-free folk songs sung by Fisherman's Friends placed them at the Top 10 charts in the UK.
Chris Foggin's “Fisherman’s Friends” doesn’t really explain how these harmonious workers and their sea shanties would have such a commercial appeal, and that proves to be intentional to its storytelling. This is a movie for instant fans; it's explicitly for anyone who doesn’t needs any convincing about why we'd instantly love them, much in the same way its underdog tale is eagerly meant to be seen as pure, and even more cloyingly, as crowd-pleasing.
This is an origin story of sorts for the ten singers who later made the biggest selling traditional folk album of all time, as primarily told from the perspective of someone trying to sell them to the world. Daniel Mays plays Danny, a snobby music manager who ventures to a small fishing town with his other A&R friends, bringing plenty of snobbiness with them. As a prank, Danny’s buddies hype him up to sign the town's singing group of ten fisherman, who they watch captivate the locals by the water with a version of "John Kanaka." Because this is apparently the A&R guy version of "Jackass," Danny's buddies leave him behind in the town as he struggles to get used to its poor cell phone reception, and tries to get them to sign. Even after he learns that his buddies were just joking, the script quickly converts the displaced Londoner into seeing the Fisherman's Friends' earnest potential—especially when he spends some time with them on the seas—and genuinely wanting to get their sound out there.
The actual members of Fisherman’s Friends get a broader treatment, their screen-time put into bite-sized sequences that have them talking about the traditions they cling to, while exemplifying the tidy characteristics they fit across age demographics. For example, the main detail about David Hayman’s singer Jago is the winking detail that he might be a little old for a boy band (Hayman is charming in a role that doesn't use him much). Or there’s the group leader Jim (James Purefoy), who has his skepticism about Danny, and a protective stubbornness that comes to the surface after an accident midway through the movie. Then there's young Rowan, who owns the pub that provides a communal space for not just the singers but the townsfolk, and is unsure how he’ll be able to pay for its rising costs. The script by Piers Ashworth, Meg Leonard, and Nick Moorcraft doesn’t put too much into these main guys, not to mention the ones we don't even get to know, because it wants us to simply see them superheroes—they are brilliant workers on the sea, and the lyrics to jams like “South Australia” or “What Do You Do with a Drunken Sailor” emerge perfectly from their hearts.
It helps that the movie is chock-full of solid performances, of people whose faces you remember even if the characters give you far less. This is particularly relevant as the movie lulls you into a rom-com rhythm as Danny tries to win over Jim’s daughter Alwyn (Tuppence Middleton), another way for him to prove that he’s not just a vulture from the big city. And of all the residents who are written to have a more than just a little glimmer in their eyes, Middleton might be the best salesperson. She puts a full, patient delivery into lines like, “The people who come and listen to them don’t care if they hit the high notes—they want to be transported to the high seas," even if some viewers might be accompany that one with a groan.
Here's a movie that doubles down on the city vs. country culture clash, and dares you to look at the fishermen's scraggly faces and knit sweaters, and listen to their five-part harmonies, or see the endless amount of happy people in town, and not wish that you were among them. It's an enticing prospect, but Foggin has little idea of how to make this all fun visually, with bits of ensemble comedy inspiring some of its weakest direction, the camera often blandly watching the residents bust Danny's chops about being the new guy in town. At the very least, Foggin can make it a little cute. When it’s time for the group to go prove their chops out in London, they show up to the tour bus in slow-motion, now all wearing sunglasses, a sea-shanty heard in place of where a typical hip-hop cue would be. Even an inspired idea comes from tradition in "Fisherman's Friends," which is more charming with the tunes more than the filmmaking.
The second half of "Fisherman's Friends" shows more of the group's bumpy path to mainstream popularity, including a high-profile wedding gig for a music executive that nearly blacklists them before they even get started. It's less of a cringing moment because their music style is so out of place, but that the story casts them with such a flat underdog dynamic, all the more obvious as they slowly rise to fame and a little fortune. Still, it’s not as bad as when the third act is stuck with Rowan's arc, and in a larger sense, Danny’s cliche existence as a city guy who learns that you shouldn't help put the local pub up for sale. It’s a belabored subplot that feels like bad karma for all of the script’s many other cheap elements.
For however much of this is true, it turns out that one of the more honest features about "Fisherman's Friends" is that it’s told through the eyes of an A&R guy. Because this movie isn’t trying to sell you on their music, so much as the script itself, with all of its mild jokes, mechanical romance, and scenes of Jim and the gang rousing up a pub with songs that were the “rock ’n roll of 1752.” The film wants to be as amiable as a drunken singalong, but it's too pushy to make you want to join in.
Now available on digital platforms.
Daniel Mays as Danny
James Purefoy as Jim
Tuppence Middleton as Alwyn
David Hayman as Jago
Dave Johns as Leadville
Sam Swainsbury as Rowan
Maggie Steed as Maggie
Noel Clarke as Troy