Sea Shanties (Film Review: “Fisherman’s Friends”)

A charming retelling of the true story about a group of Cornish fishermen who took the music charts by surprise. And they’re still singing today.

SnapShot Plot

Before I stumbled onto this feelgood charmer of a picture, if someone had suggested Fisherman’s Friends I’d tell them that my throat felt fine, thanks. Although the British cough drop might indeed come in handy when you find yourself smiling with a catch in your throat, watching 2019’s Fisherman’s Friends.

In some ways, it’s as if time has stopped in the sleepy fishing village of Port Isaac along the Cornwall coast, where a group of 10 hardy fishermen carries on a centuries-old tradition. As they do the grueling (and often dangerous) work of fishing the icy waters off the Cornish Coast, they sing the same sea shanties their ancestors have been singing since the mid-1700s. They’ve even formed a ragtag group of sorts, calling themselves the Fisherman’s Friends and putting on impromptu performances for the villagers and occasional tourists. On one such occasion, a small group of record executives from London happens to catch the Fisherman’s Friends’ ‘gig’ and what begins as a prank soon becomes a passion project for one of them, Danny, who finds himself drawn to the music and the people of Port Isaac in a way he’d never have imagined. Played as a bit of a bumbler at first, Daniel Mays (well known to UK audiences from mostly TV and theatre) finds an appealing and sincere arc in Danny’s journey from cynical industry executive to a man who’ll put his entire career and credibility on the line to promote the group to the larger audience he knows they deserve.

The unofficial leader of The Fisherman’s Friends is Jim, played with fierce yet vulnerable bravado by the magnetic James Purefoy. His roles of father to his adult daughter Alwyn, son to his fishing partner and bandmate Jago (played by the irresistible David Hayman) and grandfather to Alwyn’s young daughter Tamsyn place him at the moral center of the story. It’s through Jim’s eyes that we understand the legacy of pride in the community, the sense of history in everything they do, and the risk they’re all taking to entrust their futures to a complete outsider.

Parting Shot

In the tradition of Local Hero with shades of Once and Begin Again, what director Chris Foggin has managed to blend (almost seamlessly) are two movie tropes that traditionally fail more often than they succeed. First, the city slicker fish-out-of-water who discovers the secret to happiness in a small town’s rural environs, and second, the universal power of Music to connect people from all walks of life and renew our faith in Humanity. A pretty tall order but for the most part Fisherman’s Friends feels just that kind of magical brew. . . or maybe it’s all the drinking in pubs from Cornwall to London!

The movie of course takes license here and there with the actual story of the improbable rise to fame of the Fisherman’s Friends group, who still performs regularly in Port Isaac, and whose debut album broke records and literally put a new (old) genre of music back in fashion. But directorial and plot conceits aside, it’s the message of the music that beats at the heart of this story. And a reason why these sea shanties resonate so deeply with the people whose ancestors sang the same exact tunes. It’s that historical continuum of melody and lyrics which makes the work go faster, or the grieving go easier, especially when sung as a group. Ultimately – and this may explain the music’s popularity the world over – as beautifully captured in the scene in which the group gets an entire London pub to join in boisterous song, we get it.

You don’t have to hail from a tiny Cornish fishing village to feel the warmth of community and the kindness of strangers once one of these songs starts up until pretty soon you’re clasping arms with total strangers, stomping your feet and singing with abandon. OK, maybe a pint and a shot had something to do with it, but this music has power. I challenge you to watch this film without finding you’ve been smiling for the longest time and tapping your feet. . . OK, I was clapping too. Busted.

Fisherman’s Friends is presently streaming on Netflix.

Norma’s Streaming Picks is proud to partner on a fantastic site for Baby Boomers, Midcentury/Modern (presently known as Pandemic Diaries) as well as right here at home. I invite you to go there for more great content!

YouTube Trailer:


  • Bill says:

    it’s a shame that while 99% of shows on Netflix have a plot of death, murder, tragedy, this outlier of a feel good story has a genuine tragic backstory (or after-story I suppose). Hope they don’t make a film about that. Any other recs for quality shows without death and murder as the cornerstone of the plot?

    • Norma says:

      Excellent point! I guess tragedy sells. . . everywhere. Why don’t you stroll through my Family Films category. Some very fine foreign TV shows are quite fun, too!

  • Rene Brown says:

    Thanks for the recommendation. Watched it the other day and it was just lovely. I actually know a little about the tragedy that befell the real group. The tour manager and one of the singers were killed in a tragic accident,. The tour manager was my friend’s brother-in-law. Very sad real-life story to this very uplifting film!

    • Norma says:

      What a thoughtful comment, thank you! Yes, I did read about the tragedy and it makes this heartwarming testimonial even more lovely. Glad you enjoyed it too!

  • Judy Levy says:

    I love sea shanties a I loved this movie! Thanks Norma!!

  • Kathy Jennings says:

    Just finished this wonderful movie! We loved it! Very heart warming and such talent! Another winner Norma!!
    Thank you!

    • Norma says:

      So glad you enjoyed it as much as I did. And even more special being based on a true story. Movies like this are gems! Thank you for your thoughtful comment!

Leave a Reply