Blue Story

Although well-intentioned and full of evident promise, Blue Story sees Rapman buckling under the weight of overstretched ambition and insufficient experience.

YouTubers making the transition into feature-filmmaking has been rather prevalent in this past half-decade, as online personalities with a big enough following leverage their growing fanbase for the short-form content that they are adept at creating in order to try their hand at feature filmmaking.  Perhaps most popularised by the yearly anniversary crossover movies once put out by Channel Awesome and noted hack Doug Walker back in the day, the trend has grown substantially over the years with the Angry Video Game Nerd, Smosh, Logan Paul, Rooster Teeth, and many, many others turning to crowdfunding or other forms of investment to make their grandiose directorial ambitions a reality.  The budgets have grown, the production qualities have (sometimes) improved, and a select few of such films have graced the actual big screen for ordinary people not a part of the personality’s echo chamber fandom to pay cash money and see what the fuss is about like they would any other movie.  Once in a blue moon, such theatrical releases will even come with the backing of a major studio as anyone who remembers FRED: The Movie will unfortunately be able to attest.

But despite all that, this subgenre has adamantly failed to meaningfully progress much past those initial embarrassing yardsticks set by Channel Awesome a decade or so ago.  By which I mean, watching these films makes it abundantly clear that you’re seeing YouTubers attempting to grasp the language and conventions of cinematic feature-length filmmaking on the fly, often making a total hash of it.  This predominately manifests in two ways.  The first is that they are visually slapdash and low-rent affairs.  Sure, in general, the production qualities have improved, but that’s arguably down to the growing fidelity and cost-reduction of consumer video cameras and post-production software because you will be amazed at how many allegedly professional content creators still don’t understand the 180° rule, under/over-light their scenes, display little interest in framing and blocking, etc.

The second is that their narratives are structural nightmares.  A mess of loose threads, flabby scenes and even entire characters that don’t go anywhere, abysmal pacing and oftentimes an ambition that wildly outstretches their limited means to realise it.  The result of creators who specialise in regular short-form content not understanding how to most effectively tell a one-off longer-form story and end up stringing together something that feels like mainlining multiple episodes of a short-form series one after the other.

(Or, if you’re Rooster Teeth, you Kevin Smith the endeavour and make it completely impenetrable to anybody who isn’t already a fan who’s relentlessly consumed your live-action content for years, a la the 2010s Jay and Silent Bob media.  Seriously, sitting in a sold-out theatre of Rooster Teeth fans and watching Lazer Team was a bewildering alt-dimension experience.)

At time of writing, I have not seen a second of Shiro’s Story, the three-part musical drama that writer-director Rapman (real name: Andrew Onwubolu) self-financed and released across 2018 to the tune of over 18 million combined views, but even without that fact I could tell that he came from a YouTube background without any prior prompting by watching and being actively frustrated with his theatrical feature-length debut Blue Story.  Initially, it was the little niggles and slips in the filmmaking that betrayed his origins.  How visual compositions alternate between being either tangibly fussed-over and composed, like a night-time police raid or a contentious confrontation in a schoolyard, or slapped-together and inconsistent, where characters and extras in a scene exist in strange ill-considered framing or how a crucial climactic setpiece is so underlit as to be almost incomprehensible.  How the editing often lacks crucial establishing shots and features awkward transitions which inadvertently makes certain exchanges and narrative beats hard to follow.  How entire scenes could be excised completely from the film without losing anything.

Of course, none of those flaws are specifically endemic to YouTubers.  Many a first-time feature filmmaker can get tripped up on the technicals of filmmaking or have their first movie be tangibly held together by metaphorical pritt-stick.  It happens.  And for everything else that Blue Story does wrong, it cannot be denied that Rapman’s clearly got a strong unsparing visual style at the times when he deploys it – the streets of Peckham and Deptford are grimy, bleak spaces that often function like a haunted ghost town where the impoverished youth have been left to rot and tear themselves apart, the lack of tangible life outside of whomever is acting in the scene at that moment in time working to prove a point.  He’s also a strong director of actors.  Whenever the film ends up botching a major emotional beat (or seventeen), it’s most certainly not due to the film’s cast with the leads Stephen Odubola and Michael Ward particularly doing a strong job at investing their characters and relationships to others with a history the film otherwise has to sprint through.

But, as I keep not so subtly alluding to, I was left unmoved and extremely frustrated by Blue Story because it is a prime example of the second reason why short-form YouTubers often make a total hash of their first jump to feature-length filmmaking.  Rapman’s debut is a structural mess, so fundamentally ill-suited to the confines of the new medium that its well-intentioned – and inarguably vital given just-breaking events – urgency and heaviness ends up completely drained by the hour mark with the movie ultimately not having much of anything to say at all.

To be more specific, Blue Story is a Shakespearian tragedy where two childhood best friends, Deptford-born Timmy (Odubola) and Peckham-born Marco (Ward), end up being forced onto opposite sides of a postcode-based gang war that takes place over several years and soon leads to blood and retribution from both boys.  Marco keeps being tempted into representing and escalating despite his initial reticence thanks to the corruptive influence of his older brother Switcher (Eric Kofi-Abrefa), whilst Timmy ends up pulling away from his original circle of friends thanks to a growing relationship with the cool and cool-headed Leah (Karla-Simone Spence), and a series of minor slights and disagreements end up bringing things to a catastrophic boil.  Laid out on paper, it’s a solid narrative base and a potentially effective (if cliché-riddled) manner in which to tell this story.  The issue lies in the execution.

Blue Story’s narrative progresses less as a continuously flowing series of events and more like a collection of 11-minute web-series episodes stapled together akin to old Disney package movies from back in the 1950s.  Characters and plot beats have a very nasty habit of popping up into the narrative unannounced, racing through the arcs and relevance to the story within the span of a highly-concentrated 10 or so minutes, then immediately exiting the film as soon as their use has been fulfilled.  This happens constantly.  For example, Marco has family members who repeatedly enter and exit the film with nary a fanfare at random points with one major relative in particular who has a vital role to play in the story turning up without any foreshadowing approximately 10 minutes before the film’s climax.  Leah gets the worst of this treatment, however; her relationship with Timmy being entirely contained within one five-minute stretch of film solely dedicated to them both, a brief time-skip montage, and then its out-of-nowhere tragic conclusion.  In a serialised web-series, this kind of compressed structure would make sense – a short film bottle episode of sorts designed to work as its own thing with an ending that leaves viewers anticipating the next episode – but in a theatrical film it comes off as extremely rushed, with the overarching narrative trapped in a never-ending stop-start rhythm, and ultimately hard to care about.

This is what ultimately does Blue Story in.  Despite being influenced by and partly based on Rapman’s experiences growing up in South London, trying to survive gang wars whilst staying on the straight and narrow, and despite his flashes of visual specificity, his narrative is lacking in almost any unique touches and instead subscribes almost entirely to clichés and conventions that have been done better elsewhere for decades.  Dialogue can often be corny – my kingdom to never hear characters in a narrative media make extremely generic, vague and leaden Game of Thrones references in a manner that no actual human being talks like ever again.  Characters are thinly-sketched and too numerous to allow any depth or attachment to form, and that’s when they don’t appear to have been beamed in from another movie entirely – I haven’t even mentioned Timmy and Marco’s other pair of best friends who seem to think they’re in an Inbetweeners-esque comedy, but also they add nothing of value and are completely dropped after the big time-skip at the film’s midpoint.

And for all the film’s portentously grim and glum tone and a spirited desire to be relevant, Rapman turns out to have precious little to say about the postcode wars and the people trapped within and perpetuating it.  He never even so much as glances in the direction of examining systemic societal issues – of class, of Britain’s constantly swept-under-the-rug ingrained-racism, of decades of Tory and neo-liberal governmental policies which have fostered this kind of environment – which is a perfectly understandable angle to take so long as there is something else taking its place.  But Blue Story doesn’t display much psychological insight into its characters, either, doesn’t provide any revelatory or empathetic lessons for viewers to take away from what happens to the characters (again a result of relying heavily on cliché and burning through plot turns without letting anything breathe) beyond a general “oh, dear, what a shame,” yet still sermonises like it’s dropping hard truths with a Sunday School preacher’s level of brick-to-face subtlety.

Oh, yeah, and there are songs too since this is sort of a musical.  They’re fine, I guess.  All of them take the form of Rapman narrating events and linking proceedings through montage, with a delivery somewhere between those of slowthai and Kano, and whilst he’s not going to be challenging Dave for storytelling chops any time soon they’re at least lacking in clangers.  As an album separate from the movie, it would be alright.  Unfortunately, their appearances in the film only serve to once again highlight the project’s YouTube origins and how ill-suited they are to a feature-length film.  They effectively serve as end-of-episode wrap-up songs, summarising what has occurred, delivering the moral of that particular story, plus filling in a few crucial plot beats the film either didn’t have time or money to visualise but are still required for the rest of the film to make sense, with the device being clunky as all hell.  When summarising on-screen events we have just seen, which is hardly necessary since the oft-tin-earned dialogue already makes character’s decisions and mental states extremely clear, it inadvertently feels like the film thinks its audience are mugs not paying attention.  When back-filling in plot beats, it’s announcing with a glowing neon sign “here’s the stuff we weren’t able to film/didn’t get enough coverage of!”  And when trying to leave cliffhangers that are resolved roughly 40 seconds later when the film starts up again, it’s just kind of embarrassing.

Believe me, it brings zero pleasure to me in knocking Blue Story, even more so now that it’s managed to become an inadvertent flashpoint in Britain’s steadfast refusal to have a prolonged discussion about the country’s ingrained racism.  Rapman’s first crack in the realm of feature filmmaking demonstrates a tonne of evident potential that I’m sure with further productions – whether they be feature films, shorts, online content or whatever – he can refine into something uniquely his and be capable of realising his sprawling ambition to speak meaningfully to both the youth of today and those who live in a bubble protected from the injustice he is trying to talk about.  But his voice is currently too mired in cliché, his filmmaking is too sloppy, and his grasp of narrative is way too clumsy and misunderstanding of his new medium for Blue Story to be anywhere near as affecting or meaningful as he clearly wants it to be.  It’s a noble misfire and, despite that film now being 13 years old, you’re better off just dusting off your DVD of Kidulthood again.

Blue Story is currently playing in all non-flagrantly racist cinema chains across the UK.

Callum Petch wanna understand the gun man.

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