Before the written word, one of the main ways of passing down stories from one generation to another was through song. Considering that music is currently showing no signs of slowing down, it should surprise no one that telling the stories about the storytellers is a fine next step. This biographical films range from the absolutely absurd (Bohemian Rhapsody/Green Book) to the jaw-dropping (Rocketman). Each of them are not wholly truthful in their efforts to share the story of their protagonists, even a documentary would be slanted by way of a director’s eye, but the better biographical films focus more on the truth than the drama. Coming to the United States after a 2019 release is the new musical dramedy Fisherman’s Friends, a sort of reimagining of the origins of the Port Isaac, Cornwall, UK-based band and a charming, toe-tapping feature that’s sure to please and send you running to the internet to track down more music from this joyous group.
When the four friends left London for Port Isaac, Cornwall, all they expected was to enjoy some sailing and drinking as they celebrated Henry’s (Christian Brassington) upcoming nuptials. Thinking it would be funny, fellow reveler Danny (Daniel Mays) is tricked into approaching a local 10-person band for a music contract. But where the others just see a joke, Danny finds potential, earning the group’s trust before helping them develop a proper demo. Coming from a small town wherein these men either spend their days as fisherman, on-call for emergency rescue services, or both, a life of singing on stage was something they never could dream. With the right mixture of tenacity and friendship, the songs of the sea soon find their way out of a small fishing village and onto a global stage.
The true standout of Fisherman’s Friends is the music and the way it feels like it’s calling you back to a simpler time. Simpler, of course, doesn’t translate to better, mind you, but just presents a feeling of ease and comfort as the songs of the ocean — the trials, the tribulations, the pain, and the healing — envelope you in the dulcet tones of the band. Honestly, as lovable as the performances are from the cast, it’s the music that pulls the audience into the story. In one scene, as the band discusses the final track for the demo, they bring up the song “Widow Woman,” which Sam Swainsbury’s Rowan sings solo. Lovely though the song is, it tells the story of 24 seamen who lost their lives in 1698. Being a small fishing town whose townsfolk have lived in Port Isaac for generations, the songs they sing are loaded with history. Yes, there is the occasional pirate sea shanty that the audience is more familiar with and is likely to make them more inclined to sing in their seats, but it’s the stories of the other songs which help bring the emotional weight of Friends. These men are not just simple fishermen. They are historians, without whom the stories would be lost like rain in an ocean.
Just under the music comes the combined strength of the shooting location and the cast. By shooting in Port Isaac, director Chris Foggin (Kids in Love) captures the essence of a small town community wonderfully. This means that when the band records their demo in a local church, it’s likely the same one the actual band has been seen performing in. This authenticity can’t be fabricated and gives the cast physical things — the weather, smells, locations, and the like — to anchor their performances as they attempt to capture these real people. It’s easy to believe that David Hayman (Blinded by the Light) and James Purefoy (A Knight’s Tale) are not only Port Isaac natives, but father and son. They each possess a certain no-nonsense attitude you’d expect from people remember all the slights their forefathers endured while spending near every day on the ocean hoping to catch something to feed their families. Hayman and Purefoy quickly convey a rough tenderness for their fellow man, while also being unwilling to suffer fools. The love interest for Danny is Tuppence Middleton’s (The Current War) Alwyn, daughter to Purefoy’s Jim, and operator of a local bed and breakfast. On paper, Alwyn serves as a reason for Mays’s Danny to want to stick around Port Isaac, but Middleton ends up presenting a character with far more worth than being the object of someone’s desire. Truly, the audience would be better served with more from Middleton’s Alwyn in the film as her presence shifts the energy in a more positive direction. For his part, Mays offers a more subdued performance compared to the rest as he’s either trying to understand the people of Port Isaac, trying to get his boss to take the Friends seriously, or working to bring the album to release. Amid a collection of fun and engaging performances, Mays lands right in the middle: exactly where a character whose entire purpose is to serve as the audience’s avatar tends to be.
If there’s anything to be frustrated by, it’s learning that the story of Fisherman’s Friends is exaggerated for dramatic effect. In a similar vein to another musical dramedy recently released stateside, Military Wives, the truth of Fisherman’s Friends is altered to insert a romantic element and create more tension. In this case, Danny doesn’t actually exist and the band was discovered by 2009 BBC Radio presenter Johnnie Walker while on vacation, whose manager, Ian Brown, then traveled to Port Isaac to sign the band. Does this impact whether or not you root for the members of Fisherman’s Friends? No. Does it change how exciting and energetic, how soulful and sorrowful their music is? Absolutely not. Does it explain a bit why the conflict toward the conclusion is both overblown and wrapped up too quickly? Quite possibly. Does it make other details come into question? Yep. It never makes sense why a cinematic version of a true story needs to contain such blatant manufactured elements when the core of the story — these men, their lives, their familial connection, and this music — is captivating all on their own. Frankly, the film is strongest when it focuses on the fishermen and invites the audience to know them and listen to their music.
One particular word of warning as you consider your cinematic options: be prepared to go down a rabbit hole of music afterward. Though some albums are unavailable in the U.S., what you’re able to access through YouTube, Spotify, and iTunes is more than enough to maintain the fun energy of Fisherman’s Friends once you’ve left the cinematic version of Port Isaac. And if you find yourself wondering what happens next for the talented singers, don’t fret. Not only does the film offer some information and samples of The Friends work, but a sequel that will cover the time in their career when they played the pyramid stage at the Glastonbury Festival is in the works. Rumor is the film will release in the U.K. in 2021, so you’ve got plenty of time to wear out the available shanties before it comes to the U.S..
Available on VOD and digital in the U.S. July 24th, 2020.
Available on DVD in the U.S. July 28th, 2020.
For more information on Fisherman’s Friends, head to the official film website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.