There aren’t enough good British music films, are there?
When thinking of this small subgenre, very little comes to mind. Stardust came out recently, sure, but the less said about that the better. Schemers is certainly more entertaining than that doomed Bowie biopic, telling a story about fallible people in a less-than-perfect world, even if it stumbles somewhat along the way.
Set in 1979 Dundee, Schemers follows Davie (first-time actor Conor Berry), a good-natured and ambitious teen, who sets up a local disco in a bid to win over Shona (Tara Lee), the girl he likes. Eager for more, however, the scale of Davie’s events escalates, eventually booking acts as big as The Specials, Madness, and even Iron Maiden – but all at a cost. No man is an island, and aside from his friends Scot (Sean Connor) and John (Grant Robert Keelan), Davie turns to some shady figures to keep things going, which may end up jeopardising the reason he started this in the first place.
The first touching point that resonates in the narrative of Schemers is, oddly enough, Uncut Gems. It’s nowhere near as nerve-wracking or tense as the Safdie Brothers’ 2019 nail-biter, but the basic premise – a man totally out of his depth with bad people – is present in both. Yet perhaps the biggest difference is how these films handle their protagonists: Uncut Gems makes it impossible not to root for Howard, but Schemers can’t quite achieve that with Davie.
Yet that’s almost certainly a purposeful decision: after all, the film is directed by Davie himself (now going by David McClean). Biopics always fall down when their subject is too close to the production, and luckily Schemers doesn’t shy away from the shady moves Davie pulled on his rise to success. It certainly paints him as a fallible protagonist – he shames his girlfriend when she tries to help him, cheats on her, and gambles away money he owed his friends – but the script doesn’t quite do enough to take a side. Is McClean looking back with rose tinted glasses at his past behaviour, or is he trying to condemn this by showing how hectic his life was? It’s not quite clear, which becomes something of a trend with Schemers.
Yes, it feels at times that the film doesn’t explain its plot in quite enough depth, leaving it to be quite a mellow experience. The script, penned by McClean himself, falls into a cycle of gig-debt-threat-repeat, which becomes pretty tired towards the film’s third act, even as the notoriety of Davie’s gigs, and the threats from shady businessman Fergie (Alastair Thomson Mills), increase. The stakes just never feel visceral enough, the characters not quite developed enough to make us care, which is a shame, as a British film covering this sort of subject has never really been done before. McClean’s influences are clear: the opening narration and editing feel very reminiscent of Trainspotting, and other recent British films like Kill Your Friends bear a close resemblance to the execution here, but the script is slightly too choppy to match up to them.
That said, as a time capsule for late-70s and early-80s British culture, Schemers is a genuine marvel. The bouncy opening montage covers everything from football success to the Thatcher era, and every detail of the design, from the haircuts to the reliance on telephone boxes, feels very loyal to the period this film is immortalising. One thing it could’ve used is more of the music that feels so crucial to the plot: for a film based in the indie scene, there aren’t enough recognisable hits from that era, which feels like a missed opportunity.
Sure, it’s no Uncut Gems, but Schemers does a solid job of showing how power and desire can corrupt even the most good-natured people, even if it doesn’t flesh out its thesis as much as it could’ve. It’s clearly influenced by great British films of the past, and seeing such a visceral and passionate scene take shape, even with such shady figures involved, makes for a decent watch, even if we never quite care about what’s at stake. Best of all, though, Schemers has one of the best ‘good for her’ moments in recent memory, in a final scene that shows that McClean may be more than a little aware of the pitfalls he fell into in the past.