Films directed by musicians are a strange, unloved sub-genre. At best they are obscure oddities, like Daft Punk’s Electroma, but usually they tend to just be awful vanity projects – see Madonna’s recently slated W.E. or Ice Cube’s long-forgotten stripper-ploitation piece The Players Club. Rob Zombie is probably the only one who’s made a decent stab at it. So expectations for the behind the camera debut of Ben Drew, AKA British rapper Plan B, might not be the highest.
However, Plan B isn’t your run-of-the-mill shouty attention-seeking hoodie wearing UK urban star. His breakthrough record The Defamation Of Strickland Banks was a decidedly cinematic concept album, and he’s put in not-too-shabby acting roles in Harry Brown and Adulthood. He’s also spoken extensively in interviews about his celluloid dreams and filmic influences, and it’s almost enough to hope that this is going to be more than just Dappy from N-Dubz with a video camera.
Which means it’s a great pleasure to say that iLL Manors is possibly the best British debut since Attack The Block. It’s far from perfect – it’s a bit of a mess to be honest, but there’s enough spark and energy to carry it past any flaws.
Essentially, it plays like an ultra-depressing British version of Crash – the lives a handful of London’s poverty and criminal classes collide over a multitude of story-lines, none of which end very happily for those involved. A young estate kid is seduced by gang life and ends up making some very bad choices. A crack-addicted hooker desperately tried to make up for stealing the wrong person’s phone. A sex-trafficked Eastern European single mother flees vicious pimps, while petty dealer Riz Ahmed is left holding her abandoned baby.
The plotting leaves a lot to be desired to be honest – there are far too many unbelievable coincidences, and the fact that the urban youth stuff has been done to death really doesn’t help either. But what makes iLL Manors more than your average Adam Deacon London hood flick is the sheer excitement and energy of Drew’s direction.
Drew is clearly in debt to Mean Streets. It’s got that raw sense of the street, but also a kid who’s so excited by making a film that he can’t keep the camera still. You get the impression that Drew that really knows Scorsese’s work, as opposed to just seeing Casino and going “That was sick, innit.” He mixes up Super 8 with camera phone footage, POV shots with Koyaanisqatsi-style montages.
The handful of music sequences are iLL Manors starts flirting with greatness. For each character the film breaks off into music video origin sequences, with Drew rapping narration over the top. It could easily go wrong and turn into Trapped In The Closet, but Drew is such an excellent storyteller it actually makes for startling viewing and is actually one of the best integrations of hip-hop and cinema in movie history. An appearance from post-punk performance poet legend John Cooper Clarke shows that Drew is trying to create something unique and British, as opposed to impotently aping the US, and it’s all the better for it.
There’s a lot wrong with the film, but at its heart it’s tough, relevant, exciting filmmaking. With a better script and a bit more money Ben Drew might someday soon produce a masterpiece.