Director: Claire Dix
Cast: Costello, Willa Lee, G.I., Dean Scurry
Running Time: 66 minutes
Release Date: November 15th
Broken Song is a documentary about young people and music in Finglas. The film’s style is poetic and simple reportage is avoided. We follow several young musicians – rappers Costello and G.I., and singer Willa Lee – as they work on their own careers and try to inspire their younger contemporaries. Their stories are not so much told as piled up or tossed together out of fragments. There is no narration. Occasionally we get a glimpse of a housing estate under water done in clunky CGI. The idea seems to be that a whole culture is submerged, obscured from view, stuck in the depths.
Perhaps the point is that this is the case with an underprivileged area like Finglas. Or it could be the plight of the Irish hip hop scene, a supportive and obsessive community that has never really been given the attention it deserves. The one million viewers who tuned into the Love/Hate finale are obviously compelled by Dublin street culture; a successful film could help the genre slip into the mainstream. After all, La Haine brought French working-class rap as far as my Leaving Cert.
Yet Claire Dix, director of Broken Song, betrays no ambition to crack the multiplexes. The tagline is “Poetry, Rap and Song from the Fringes,” and the fringes are where the film sticks itself and its subjects. The speed is set to arthouse, with few cuts and minimal camera movement. Most scenes are in black and white and Finglas looks the way it probably would on an overcast winter afternoon. There’s little sense of the momentum surely being created by the musicians’ talent and ambition. The low-key drama of Willa Lee’s court appearances are the only concessions to the traditional sort of documentary narrative. We usually only hear snippets of the actual music – in fact, it’s almost as though the filmmakers are a little afraid of the genre they’re trying to support. Singer Willa Lee gets to perform whole numbers, but they’re ‘unplugged’ versions with only acoustic guitar for accompaniment – his music in a form made safe for IFI patrons.
Like those submerged semi-ds, everything is smudged and indirect. Each musician tells of how they had to overcome the sorts of obstacles that tend to come with the territory – court dates and community service, drugs, depression. But there are no interviews; instead, their voices are disembodied, floating over clips of studio time, or songwriting sessions, or concert preparation. The talking heads-style interview often has the effect of recreating the old confession box setup, with the viewer expected to offer penance, and this is a fairer alternative. But clarity is sacrificed, because we often simply don’t know who is speaking.
Broken Song is artfully shot, and doesn’t patronise its subjects. This is especially the case during several winningly co-conspiratorial scenes of soft drug use. But when you’re making a film about under-appreciated artists, you’re also making a pitch. Dix undersells her extraordinarily talented subjects. What G.I., Costello and Willa Lee need is to be seen and engaged with, and only a film that imagines itself as a mainstream contender – I’m thinking of Frank Cooney’s Ballymun Lullaby – will do. Otherwise you’re just singing to yourself.