There is a tendency for some people to react to stories that look, and it’s the word “look” that’s key here, like everything else that’s ever gone before, like they are the worst possible form of creativity, trading in tired clichés and tropes with nary an original thought to their been-there, done-that narrative.
While that can true of any number of stories that recycle old ideas like they’re going out of fashion and rely on shiny production or bombastic CGI to paper over the creative wrinkles, it’s manifestly not the case with I Used to be Famous, a heartwarming tale that very much fits into that British film genre of redemptive tales where someone down on their luck or lost in life is saved by the found family community of others.
It’s an appealing genre for a reason since who doesn’t want to feel like that the broken moments and irredeemable interludes can’t be given meaning or hope again, and while I Used to be Famous fits cosily into that mold, it’s by no means a derivative prisoner of it, delivering up some truly affecting performances, emotional authenticity and neurodiversity representation that really means something.
Let’s get the tropes and clichés out of the way first.
Set in modern day London, Peckham to be exact, I Used to be Famous centres on boy band has-been Vince (Ed Skrein as adult Vince, Stanley Morgan at the heyday of his fame twenty years earlier) who is struggling to make something of his life.
Unemployed and down on his luck, Vince tinkers with music, spending his days going from pub to pub trying to get some interest in the performance of his half-finished songs, all the time aware that his ex-bandmate Austin (Eoin Macken) has gone onto solo glory, a career so successful that he is preparing to retire after a farewell tour when he’s barely touching the margins of middle age.
In simple terms, Austin has made it, Vince has not, and still caught in the loop of defining himself by whether he is a household name or not, Vince remains defined not by whether he is creatively or otherwise fulfilled and close to those he loves but whether he is a pop sensation, with number one singles and a social media frenzy following him wherever he goes.
All that changes, or begins to change at least, thanks to a chance meeting with Stevie (Leo Long), a neurodiverse older teenager whose main way of dealing with crowds and unexpected stimuli is to tap out a rhythm, either on the drum set at home or at his music therapy group led by the infectiously enthusiastic Dia (Kurt Egyiawan).
This unlikely pairing leads to the making of beautiful music, an unexpected big brother/little brother friendship, a successful though not wholly so gig and independence for Stevie who, with the confidence he gains from collaborating and performing with Vince, which doesn’t quite pan out as expected, sets about defining himself in ways set apart from his loving mum Amber (Eleanor Matsuura) who discovers she has some dreams of her own to dig up from the messy layers of her past life.
Coupled with an “awwwww” worthy ending and a sense that everyone is on the cusp of something empoweringly redemptive with even Vince finding peace with past pain of a very personal kind, I Used to be Famous is, on the surface at least, an inspiringly lovely ticking of all the salvation by others genre that the British execute so heart restoringly well.
But, and this is where the film reveals unexpected emotional heft and substantial transformative power, I Used to be Famous goes much further than a simple adherence to some well-loved tropes and clichés, all of which are employed by the way, in a manner than doesn’t even remotely reek of phoning it in.
Inspired by the story of a real life family member, director Eddie Steinberg, who co-wrote the screenplay with Zak Klein), brings some truly affecting truthfulness to the story, exploring what it means for people like Vince mainly but also Amber to find long-lost dreams again, or for someone like Stevie to find them in the first place.
But it’s not only the future and it’s ability to be re-fashioned and made anew that fuels the narrative in I Used to be Famous.
The past haunts Vince in ways so palpable that it’s like it’s living with him in his beleaguered present, and stuck in the kind of regret that has few touchstones to re-orient him, Vince is perhaps destined, at the start of the film at least, to never find his way to a present that actually means something in and of itself and free from the debilitating pain of the past.
Watching Vince grappling with the ramifications of past decisions, and those of others including a regretful Austin, infuses I Used to be Famous with an emotional veracity that makes the film far more than a simply light and floaty fairytale story of hope found again.
We’ve all got regrets about things that we can seemingly do little to nothing about, and while I Used to be Famous does give Vince some freedom from this, it doesn’t pretend for a second that life is so easily fixed that you can meet a neurodiverse kid, find your creativity and sense of life purpose renewed and skip off happily into the sunset.
I Used to be Famous is thankfully not that simplistic, choosing to focus on the fact that while happy endings of a sort are possible, they are not, by any means, going to fix things wholesale and not without some scarring still being evident.
It’s this commitment to raw, real humanity in the midst of a redemptive tale, coupled with knock it out of the park performances by real-life neurodiverse actor Long, Skrein whose face is a tapestry of pain, hope and bewilderment, and Matsuura who embodies every woman who has put aside her own dreams to care for her kid, that give such emotional muscularity to I Used to be Famous.
Sure, it’s full of skillfully and movingly well-used tropes and clichés, but they are not the sum total of the film, nor the whole reason for its existence, with I Used to be Famous having a huge amount of truly worthwhile things to say about the rich value of human diversity, of the way the past and present interact and how it can challenging but not impossible to deal with them to find your way to a fulfilling future, and how found families, of the most unlikely kind, can transform lives in unexpected and wonderfully life-affirming ways, leaving life far better than it was before they came along.