A fairly by-the-numbers romantic musical, Been So Long is nonetheless elevated by the undeniable chemistry of its leads.
My heart is a dried up little grape of cynicism and resentment, so the romance, let along the musical romance, is not something I’m particularly susceptible to. Then again I’m also an unapologetic advocate of rising star Michaela Coel, who won a Bafta for Chewing Gum but can be seen most recently in the BBC’s excellent drama Black Earth Rising. And in that sense I’m in luck, as Been So Long, which debuted on Netflix today and will enjoy a limited theatrical release in the U.K., is defined almost entirely by Michaela Coel’s excellent leading performance.
I should also give credit where it’s due to her co-star here, Arinze Kene, and it’s their chemistry that defines and elevates what is otherwise a fairly rote and predictable romantic musical. Coel plays Simone, a single mum of a precocious daughter who lives a deliberately austere life, much to the annoyance of her hard-partying friend Yvonne (Ronke Adekoluejo). Lured into a night out for vagina-related purposes, Simone, quite by chance, meets the good-looking and charming Raymond (Kene), who is fresh out of prison and trying to rebuild his life. Good girl, meet bad boy. If you think you’ve got a good idea of where this is ultimately going, you’re absolutely right.
Been So Long comes courtesy of director Tinge Krishnan, who has the good sense to let her stars do most of the work. Coel is dynamite as ever, and Kene has a silky, laidback charm that makes their relationship seem effortless and natural while the film’s exterior workings as a screen musical feel quite the opposite. Ché Walker’s script is adapted from his own play and its subsequent stage adaptation, which is rather obvious, knotted up as it is with various underwritten supporting characters and bizarre subplots.
The songs are fine, which is nowhere near good enough, although perhaps the film’s finest achievement is how it colours in and spices up the grim architecture of a gentrifying North London. (One of the song-and-dance numbers is set in a kebab shop.) But despite how well and inventively Been So Long uses its locations, there’s a certain run-of-the-mill artlessness to the musical routines that fails to communicate the same depth of feeling that the performances do. Luckily, you can hear the music loud and clear, just so long as the leads aren’t singing.