DIR: Claire Dix • PRO: Nodlag Houlihan • DOP: Richard Kendrick • ED: Guy Montgomery • CAST: Willa Lee, James Costello. Git, Costello
If you’re on top of homegrown TV, documentaries on the Irish hip-hop scene seem to be a dime a dozen these days but Claire Dix’s feature film debut Broken Song proves there’s nothing to fix (and a few new boundaries to break) when shining a light on a counter culture as fresh and as fluid as ever. We’ve all seen them, heard them and judged them, as harshly as their American counterparts before them, but the artists featuring in this award-winning documentary attain real heart and soul and come to articulate the meaning behind their art as fluently and beautifully as the film that frames them unfolds.
Broken Song follows the trials (in one case literally so) and tribulations of Costello, Git, and Willa Lee as they meditate and mediate upon the thin line separating a life of crime or a life of rhyme, where their street poetry has overlapped and why perhaps the former must be left behind to truly pursue the latter. Their chaotic lifestyles are reflected in recording studios, live on stage, outside court proceedings and most succinctly on the streets aligning their homes and havens of North Dublin from which their passions transpired and inspired them to write.
It’s worth noting here that the film’s credit lies in the fact that it isn’t concerned solely with hip-hop music. The beautifully photographed opening (courtesy of DOP Richard Kendrick), featuring Costello and Willa Lee diving and floating in slow motion above the depths of Dublin bay, performs as a prologue of sorts proposing that we are going to explore something spiritual, akin to all artists and individuals alike. In other words, that ‘special something’ that calls on us from time to time to express our innermost thoughts in return for a precious moment of catharsis. The stark black and white orchestration also encourages us to leave our stereotypes in the foyer as the people often perceived to be the dregs of society prove to be it’s guttural poets fluent in a unique language to combat adversity.
The scenes that follow feature Costello, Git and Dean Scurry (of Working Class Records) engaged in youth work to encourage a new generation of morally conscious artists to be passion and not power-fueled. At first they approach local teens quick to portray a confident, brash and threatening machismo but the filmmakers invest enough time and a respectful distance to allow the gangster persona to dissolve revealing in it’s place self-conscious and self-critical individuals desperate to have their voices heard above overwhelming hardships and our own generalisations.
Any posturing for the camera on Willa Lee’s part is also swiftly dispelled as conversations become confessionals of addiction, muggings and extreme violence. He’s wise beyond his nineteen years but past faults and fissures coupled with periods of plain stupidity see him teetering perilously on a knife’s edge. Refreshingly so, he’s not a character we’re prompted to simply love or hate and in one particularly memorable sequence we go from learning the verdict of his ongoing court proceedings to a live performance wherein he serenades his audience with a soulful tune of personal affliction and we, his second audience, are then caught somewhere in the middle of our judgments provoking an interesting collision of thought and emotion. If that wasn’t complex enough there’s a real sense of suspended guilt in his lyrics and we can only hope (by the final curtain) that he learns to do right by the law and achieve his dreams untainted.
Scenes with the mentor-like duo of Costello and Git remind us eloquently that music has allowed them and others to transcend any dead-end mentalities imposed upon them. It performs as a ‘beacon’ over troubled waters, a ‘light in darkness’ and reflects in the filmmakers’ own recurring motifs to express a sense of floating above and below water and the fear of drowning (in life and in the industry), a clear and constant danger. If we forget where the world of the narrative takes place it’s presented to us in stark blues and greens, first in a misty veil that slowly dissolves to reveal North Dublin homes and housing estates submerged in water, like paintings in a fish tank to evoke that sense of entrapment and timelessness, of past lives the artists can sometimes sink into and have sought to soar above.
In virtue of this, Broken Song is more of a character piece than your run-of-the-mill music doc and despite the talent on screen and the arena of scope, the filmmakers are confident enough to allow moments of silence and quiet contemplation. The emphasis is focused firmly on an art that has helped its practitioners to transcend daily life and strife not to mention its redemptive power as complex characters with complex pasts relate what it means to find something worth living right by.
As a whole the documentary succeeds without falling foul of preachy or overly sentimental discourse and so achieves a refreshingly raw and sometimes uncompromising experience that elevates its subjects in a compelling light.
Broken Song is released on 15th November 2013