By Leah Greenblatt
May 05, 2020 at 05:02 PM EDT
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Earlier this year, a radically reworked West Side Story came to Broadway, with mixed results. Some welcomed its bold attempts to drag the beloved musical — already itself an audacious update of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet — into a 21st century of smart phones and clavicle tattoos; others found it messy and disjointed, too stylized by half.

That’s the eternal hazard, maybe, of the hip-hop musical: a small but potent genre whose latest addition comes from across the pond via Andrew Onwubolu a.k.a. Rapman, the London-bred MC, writer, and producer whose self-financed YouTube series Shiro’s Story has earned him more than 20 million streams since its 2018 release.

It was Shiro’s success that offered him the platform for his feature-length debut, Blue Story, another kind of Shakespearian tragedy recast in the rhythms of contemporary urban life — in this case, a raw street-level portrait of two best friends whose postcode rivalry blooms into an all-out war.

Everett Collection

The result is undeniably heartfelt, if hamstrung in the end by the worn familiarity of its plot lines and players: From the first scene, we see that Timmy (Stephen Odubola) and Marco (Michael Ward) share the fierce loyalties that so many teenage boys do, and that they can fall out just as easily. A run-in with a few friends from Timmy’s old neighborhood lights the match; the rest of it only takes a few hard words to ignite.

As a director, Onwubolu brings a tender, vivid touch the film’s relationships — particularly Timmy’s giddy plunge into first love with the fiercely independent Leah (Karla Simone-Spence) — though he stumbles when it comes to building deeper storylines around them; there's almost no narrative turn that doesn't seem telegraphed from the jump.

It doesn’t help, too, too, that he inserts his own rap interludes throughout the story, which act as a sort of goofy and mostly unnecessary instant recap of events we’ve literally just seen, and that the thick local patois of his immensely likable young cast often begs for subtitles (which weren’t available in a pre-release screening, though they should be on VOD).

Instead, Blue mostly feels like a blunt tool for delivering a timeless, even old-fashioned cautionary tale; one that resonates the same whether you're a Jet or a Shark or just a kid on the other side of the Atlantic, trying to make it out of this world alive. B–

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