There is nothing quite like the magic of a musical. Arguably the most “extra” segment of the entertainment world, musicals allow us to simultaneously escape reality through vibrant costumes, song and dance and aggrandized emotions, while still grounding us in reality by exploring universal human truths or life lessons. Out of the broad pool of musicals that have taken the bold leap into film adaptation, there are few that find success: “Rent,” “Les Misérables,” “West Side Story” and a sprinkling of other fabulous theater-to-film pieces. The one essential ingredient that all of these iconic adaptations share is that they adapt, which is where “Been So Long” falls short. Though filled with well-defined and intriguing characters and a solid plot, Netflix’s latest musical romance forgets that audiences are watching through their laptop screens, not in the balcony seats of a live Broadway production.
Secure with herself, unbending in her morals and protective of her heart, Camden resident and single mother Simone (Michaela Coel, “Chewing Gum”) isn’t exactly looking for love. With her daughter’s upbringing as her top priority, men are close to the last thing on her mind. One night, after some coaxing (and alcohol) from her boisterous and bold best friend Yvonne (Ronke Adekoluejo, “Christopher Robin”), Simone finds herself in a match of back and forth flirtatious banter (in song-form) with an attractive and mysterious stranger named Raymond (Arinzé Kene, “The Pass”), who Simone soon learns has a criminal record. When Simone’s blunt probing into Raymond’s past hits a nerve and he leaves the bar with a bruised ego, it seems that the twos’ paths are unlikely to cross again. Sure enough, however, Simone and Raymond meet again later that night on the bus and, induced by their curiosity about one another and magnetic chemistry to rekindle their connection, they exchange phone numbers. As the film progresses, Simone struggles to sift through her conflicting feelings of desire and affection for Raymond and her fears of rashly falling for a man she worries she can’t trust.
To Michaela Coel and Arinzé Thomas’s credit, the two actors are successful in making the romance between Raymond and Simone genuine. One of the most tangible moments occurs when the two share a duet, purely and deeply expressing their feelings for one another under the glowing, pink-tinged ambiance of Raymond’s bedroom. Along with this well-developed character spark between Simone and Raymond, the film’s presentation of Simone as in control of both her blossoming bond with Raymond and her life overall is unexpected, especially within the Netflix romance genre. Simone is not the typical life-in-shambles, quirky trope of a single-parent woman. She is solid, present and invested in her daughter’s health and well-being, confident in her beauty and she doesn’t play into the “woe is me” routine. Additionally, with Raymond, there is a demonstrated effort to portray Simone as the pursuer and driver of the relationship. Raymond puts his number in her phone. She sends the first text, initiates the date on her terms and doesn’t play into the tired stereotype of the woman lying in wait for a text back. And it’s refreshing, to say the least.
While not devoid of charm, largely brought on by its sturdy characters, the majority of song and dance in the film is unnatural and forced. Song sequences are hastily interjected, preventing the development of consistent pace or rhythm. In fact, many musical numbers are just plain awkward and uninvolving, including an unwarranted, oversexualized number from Yvonne and a bizarre solo sung by the minor bartender figure. Not to mention, the dance throughout the film is weak and watered-down. Whenever a character begins to sway or jive, it is almost as if they know they are performing for a MacBook screen, not a theater stage. They hold back half their effort, afraid to generate a real wow factor. The attempts to incorporate more characters into the musical aspects of the film draws attention to the underdeveloped and uninteresting subplots and away from what the film should invest its focus on: Simone and Raymond.
It would be unfair to say point-blank that “Been So Long” isn’t worth a watch. With positive elements like the energy between the two protagonists and a compelling plot, the movie isn’t by any means a flop. However, the unavoidable frustration that comes with watching this film is that, as a film, it is so-so, but as a musical on an open stage, filled with theatrical zest and pep, “Been So Long” could have had the potential to shine.