Jungle Review – TV’s First Musical Isn’t Not As Cutting-Edge As It Thinks | Television & radio
EEver since West Side Story brought a spin to a knife fight, the downtown musical has had a credibility problem. Take Jungle (Prime Video), a six-episode drama set in a neon-lit near future in London and told “through the lens of British rap and boring music”. Is this a cry from the heart of disgruntled urban youth? Or a slice of stylish entertainment, as escapist as any? Could it be both?
Even Jungle’s narrator seems uncertain, even though he says it: “What if I told you it was all real?” asks a harsh-talking voiceover at the start of the first episode. “That it wasn’t just a story with a bunch of cameras, actors and musicians all coming together for your entertainment.” What if? The implication is that we pampered viewers in our cozy living rooms couldn’t hack into the unfiltered urban reality. Maybe co-creators Junior Okoli and Chas Appeti would have been wise to have those “just a story” basics right before picking such fights?
At the center of their story is Gogo (newcomer Ezra Elliot), a young thief and soon-to-be father who wants to get out of the criminal lifestyle before he’s even coerced into one last robbery by his bully partner in crime, Slim ( rapper RA). When – inevitably – something goes wrong and Slim starts shooting, Gogo is shaken with guilt. But not enough, apparently, to stop him from pawning a dead man’s watch to underworld dealer Mia Mor$ (Manchester-based rapper IAMDDB). Before long, he is hunted down by the victim’s closest avengers (M24 and J Fado) and finds himself embroiled in even more shady schemes.
It’s a well-worn, fairly straightforward crime plot made confusing by unskilled narration and uninspired performances. All of this would be more excusable if Jungle could truly claim to be original. It cannot, however, despite being billed as “TV’s first musical”. In 2018, the YouTube series Shiro’s Story offered a similar rap-told melodrama about rivalry and revenge, which, like Jungle, featured cameos from prominent British MCs (Shiro’s Story had Konan and Headie One; in Jungle it’s the more pop likes of Tinie Tempah, Dizzee Rascal and Big Narstie). When deep-pocketed Paramount Pictures called, Shiro’s Story creator Andrew “Rapman” Onwubolu repackaged his winning formula in the feature Blue Story (2019). It was a hit at the UK box office with its target demographic of 16 to 24, and put actor Micheal Ward (Small Axe, Top Boy) on the road to stardom.
Above all, Blue Story a) never wasted time justifying its existence to a supposed audience of middle-class skeptics and b) employed actors to play the acting role, while Rapman provided his own Greek chorus-like commentary . It’s no small task to fill a cast with performers who are equally good at both. Traditionally, Hollywood and Bollywood have circumvented this problem by dubbing professional “reading singers,” but Jungle goes the other way, casting up-and-coming MCs in key roles. This further exposes the weakness of the script, as most of these guys can only sell a line when they rap it. (Though it’s something to see otherwise flat performances come to life when a beat kicks in.)
Okoli and Appeti, who collaborate as Nothing Lost, were apparently more concerned with creating a futuristic, sleek aesthetic for their show. It is a laudable goal. God knows, there’s no reason every “urban” drama should be gritty, gray realism. But Jungle does not seem to have developed its vision much beyond this initial idea: “What if it was Blade Runner… but for the bad guys‘The ostentatious interiors look more like sets than lived-in homes; the direction is too dependent on a repetitive handful of flashy shots; and while, yes, the old council skyscrapers can make webs cool background for bloody, balletic action, Gangs of London has done it before – and done it better.
That big streamers like Amazon’s Prime Video are willing to invest in risky, untested creations is a sign of a healthy industry, even when – above all when – these risks do not pay off. Also, I’m no economist, but clearly siphoning some of Jeff Bezos’ billions out of the pockets of drill rappers makes for a fairer society for everyone. However, this series is eminently deactivatable. There’s more consistent entertainment to be found by browsing the new freestyle videos on GRM Daily.