Michaela Coel plays a character called Simone in Tinge Krishnan’s neon-bright urban musical “Been So Long” — and whether that’s coincidental, or intended to humor internet fan calls for the up-and-comer to headline a Nina Simone biopic, the message gets across anyway. Not that there’s anything Simone-like about the blend of perky showtunes and steamy soul that scores this slender but wholehearted romance between two weathered souls in diverse North London: It’s the ferocity of Coel’s star power, bigger and tougher than the amiable film around her, that makes the point on its own. As a showcase for her and the silky charms of leading man Arinzé Kene, this Netflix-distributed diversion works quite cheerfully; as a screen musical, it’s less satisfying, with less-than-memorable songs never quite bridging its leaps from everyday realism to romantic fantasy.
For Krishnan, “Been So Long” is an ambitious sophomore step up from her microbudget 2011 debut “Junkhearts,” and she manages its many moving parts with peppy aplomb and brash visual pizzazz, even as Ché Walker’s script — drawn from his own play and subsequent stage musical adaptation — gets tangled up in too many lightly sketched subplots. Though it’ll get limited theatrical distribution in U.K., the film is ideally placed to find a Netflix following through word of mouth: Some films play best with a couchful of slightly inebriated friends, and “Been So Long,” which practically begs for rowdy audience interaction at key points, may well be one.
As the title says, it’s certainly been a while since young single mother Simone got rowdy or inebriated. Painfully separated from the father of her precocious daughter Mandy, she leads a quiet,man-free life of steamed kale and responsible behavior in her Camden council flat, to the point that her more outgoing best friend Yvonne (Ronke Adekoluejo, terrific) feels duty-bound to stage an intervention: “It’s an emergency, your vagina called and told me it’s dying,” she snaps, before dragging a reluctant Simone to their favorite dive bar of old. There, she strikes an immediate spark with Raymond (Kene), a lone-wolf player who’s also out of practice socially, albeit for less wholesome reasons: A hapless criminal accessory, he’s fresh from a prison sentence, with a tracking tag on his ankle and a parole curfew still over his head.
Whip-smart, no-bull Simone immediately sees through the handsome stranger’s cover story, convincing herself the last thing her sensible life needs is a jailbird beau. But the heart wants what it wants — as do other parts of the body, as some of the film’s more amusingly randy song-and-dance numbers make explicitly clear — and she soon finds herself succumbing to his kind heart, megawatt smile and egg-carton abs. Their good-girl-bad-boy dynamic unfolds in largely formulaic fashion, but it’s buoyed by the stars’ fast, frisky chemistry, and complicated by Coel’s flinty performance. A good girl Simone may be, but any viewers familiar with Coel from her fizzing Channel 4 sitcom “Chewing Gum” know that she can’t play a wet blanket: “Been So Long” thrives on the witty sexuality and combative intelligence she brings to Walker’s writing.
Considerably less engaging is a surfeit of underwritten character business bustling around the core relationship, including Yvonne’s own romantic travails, the uncertain future of the dive bar in gentrifying London, Mandy’s secret investigation into her paternity and, most out of place of all, a lovelorn junkie (an awkwardly crazed George MacKay) with a vague bone to pick with Raymond. On stage, the ragtag nature of the narrative may have flowed better than it does here. A more infectiously integrated song score might knit the parts together, but no individual number gains quite enough electricity to give this musical the choreographed sense of communality it calls for — though Krishnan has fun bringing Broadway-style staging to such unlikely surrounds as a midnight kebab shop.
It certainly all looks a treat, with d.p. Catherine Derry variously soaking proceedings in the hot pinks of fancy-free nightlife and the hazy lovestruck lilacs of the morning after. And in the close, doting way the camera caresses its stars, “Been So Long” certainly shows where it chief strengths lie: Coel and Kene may both capably handle their songs, but the film’s real music is in their faces, singing, silent or otherwise.