Blue Story

Michael Ward and Stephen Odubola in 'Blue Story.' (Paramount Pictures/Nick Wall)
Michael Ward and Stephen Odubola in 'Blue Story.' (Paramount Pictures/Nick Wall)


Timmy, a shy, smart, naïve and timid young boy from Deptford, goes to school in Peckham, where he strikes up a friendship with Marco, a charismatic, streetwise kid from the local area. Although from warring postcodes, the two quickly form a firm friendship until it is tested and they wind up on rival sides of a street war.


There’s something darkly ironic about a film that is all about portraying the absolute, bloody worthlessness and destructiveness of embracing violence and the "gang-banging" lifestyle being banned by a cinema chain for "promoting gang violence". And yet, that’s exactly what happened when a pair of cinema chains in the UK decided to remove Blue Story (albeit ultimately temporarily) from theatres after an outbreak of gang violence at one of the early screenings of the film.

Sadly, that twisted bit of irony is the only particularly interesting thing about the film, even as its clear-eyed good intentions are its only real saving grace as a piece of cinema.

Written, directed and rap-narrated by Andrew Onwubolu (or as he is better known: Rapman) and based on his YouTube series of the same name from 2014, Blue Story is a genuinely morally sound, humane and right-headed film about how a single act of violence can destroy the lives of dozens and how a life devoted to a philosophy of violence has no happy endings (spoiler? Not really). Is that enough on which to recommend it, though? Sadly, no, not so much.

It’s not, for starters, a remotely original film as it features a story that has been told time and time again; a moral that is as right as it is, basically, cliché; and a depiction of gang warfare that brings absolutely nothing new to the table. Its utter lack of originality isn’t really the main problem with Blue Story, though. It’s a collection of clichés, yes, but considering its young target audience who would do well to heed its message and who may tragically not be as exposed to it as they ought to be, that in and of itself isn’t much of an issue. Even its complete lack of subtlety may be easy to sneer at but is perfectly justified when you consider the film’s purpose and who it is aimed at.

The main problem, very simply, is that the film is, quite simply, badly written, badly directed, badly edited and just an abject failure as both a piece of cinema and a piece of storytelling. And, unlike the glee I admittedly take in trashing the latest terrible Michael Bay catastrophe or Adam Sandler "comedy", I get no pleasure in lambasting Blue Story. It is, after all, a passion project, a directorial début made on a shoestring budget, and is so good in its intentions that it feels churlish to the extreme to say that it’s not much good at anything else. But it’s not.

The film started life as a YouTube series and, unfortunately, it never really outgrew its amateurish roots on the way to the big screen. Loads of great films have that DIY aesthetic, of course, but they still manage to be cinematic. You just can’t say that about Blue Story. Not only do you not need to watch it on the big screen, it probably works better when viewed on a smartphone or, at most, a tablet. In a cinema, though, it just lacks any sense of dynamism or vitality. It just kind of sits there with its amateurish weaknesses on full display.

Most crucially, though, it definitely looks like the work of someone who is used to working in short-form storytelling and has gotten completely lost in the transition to telling a feature-length story. It completely lacks any sense of narrative thrust as it meanders from scene to scene and character to character without ever really considering if any of it actually adds to the fairly basic story its trying to tell. A party scene that goes on for something like seven days is a particularly egregious example of this.

Rapman also seems a bit confused as to where our sympathies should lie as he spends an inordinate amount of time later on in the film trying to get us to care about a certain character with no redeemable qualities to speak of, while often completely losing sight of who the film’s primary characters are. None of the characters fares all that well, when you get right down to it. The two leads (capably but uninspiringly played by Stephen Odubola and Micheal Ward) are very shallowly drawn – and they are by far the most complex characters in the film!

That shallowness also creeps into Rapman’s depiction of gang-banger life. There’s never any real sense of why these characters act the way they do, why these gangs exist, and why they’re such a draw for young people in the first place. It’s a pretty egregious error, all things considered, when you think about the intentions of the filmmaker in telling this story.

Where I really lost all patience and faith in the film, though, is when Rapman himself shows up on screen to rap-splain the plot to us. The first time he does this, literally right at the beginning of the film, he just about gets away with it as it serves as a useful and fairly painless info dump of the characters’ backstories and the world they inhabit. It’s super clumsy, of course, and it brazenly breaks the show-don’t-tell rule, but I at least understand why it’s there. After that, though, aside for showing off Rapman’s rapping skills (I don’t know much about hip hop so I’m asking this genuinely but... he’s not that great, is he?), I have no idea what the point is.

It’s like he wanted to make the film a full-blown musical but couldn’t quite bring himself to actually make it that. Possible because it takes away from the "realism" of the film but also, presumably, because then it really would just be West Side Story with (inevitably) worse songs. Also, the songs in musicals are supposed to reveal the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters above all else, not just explain what’s already very clearly on screen.             

Sadly, this is actually emblematic of what is basically wrong with Blue Story: great intentions, inadequate execution.