A black and white documentary about the 'underground' rap scene in Ballymun and Finglas, Broken Song does what all good documentaries should do: tells us about an aspect of everyday life that we may not have even known existed. We're first introduced to James Costello, age undetermined but probably early 30's, and he has just released his first rap album. He's still out on the streets, talking to younger men who look up to him, and teaching them the ways of modern poetry, using their lyrical skills to tell the stories of their lives.
Then we're introduced to Willa Lee, an even younger man who is in the process of putting together his own record, finally performing live gigs, with a letter from Damien Dempsey himself saying how good he is. Willa has a voice that could be compared to Marvin Gaye or a male Lauryn Hill, but he is also facing jail time for aggressive assault and robbery from a few years prior, before he began putting his life in order.
There is a sense that director Claire Dix didn't entirely know what to do with this project, as so much time is devoted to Costello's story, and then almost entirely dropped when Lee's (admittedly much more interesting) plot comes to the fore. There are also elements that feel totally superfluous or out of place, such as Costello's visit to a fortune teller, or the heavy handed visual metaphor of an entire CGI'd housing estate under water.
Despite these minor faults however, Broken Song still makes for some very interesting viewing. Watching Willa Lee sing his heart out is riveting, writing songs about being broken hearted and coming from desolate backgrounds and pleading for the listener to feel sympathy, when we know of the horrible things he's done is a truly complicated experience to endure.
You can't help but feel that if the film had focused entirely on either Lee's story, or just the storytelling-through-rap aspect of Costello's teachings, this could have been fantastic. As it stands, it's 'only' quite good, and still definitely worth a watch, but like the people involved, we can't help but be frustrated as the obvious potential to be better slips away.