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Issue: February 2023, Living, Inspired with IDD
Promotional image for the Netflix movie called I Used To Be Famous. A musician sits on a park bench playing the keyboard in front of him white a young man with autism plays percussion on a green metal garbage can. Red text in the upper left corner reads I Used To Be Famous.
Cheilaugh Garvey
Freelance contributor

“I Used to be Famous” is a feel-good movie with admirable performances by Ed Skrein and neurodivergent teen Leo Long. The story opens as Vince (played by Skrein) meets up with autistic drummer Stevie (played by Long in his first movie role), and the two bond over their music in an unlikely friendship.

The film hits many sweet chords, yet the most brilliant aspect just may be the casting of Long, a neurodivergent folk musician and actor who has performed with the London Youth Folk Ensemble and National Open Youth Orchestra. While Long’s drumming knocks it out of the park, his acting style is authentic and completely relatable.

“It’s great to recognize that neurodivergent people can act too and that I have done my part to break down barriers which I am very proud of,” said Long in an interview in Youth Music UK. Long’s powerful portrayal of Stevie earned him a BIFA Breakthrough Performance Award nomination for 2022.

Skrein’s performance shines too, with an emotional intensity that is gripping. Decades earlier Vince was a wildly popular boy band leader; now he lugs his keyboard around on an ironing board across working-class London, peddling his lukewarm music to local venues. He’s clearly suffering from personal angst, literally dragging his raft of regret behind him for years. Set in a gritty neighborhood of London, replete with grungy pubs and rude club owners, the hardship is palpable.

Like the washed-up character he plays, Skrein himself has “been on a couple of journeys,” he explains in an interview in The Guardian. He relates to “the crushing feeling of not achieving what you had projected to the world that you were gonna do,” which leads to Vinnie’s current frustrations and despair.

When the two connect in an impromptu jam session in a public square, the spontaneous energy and connection is electrifying. They enchant the enthusiastic crowd of onlookers, and a social post from a bystander gets viral attention.

Stevie’s anxious mother Amber is played by Eleanor Matsuura; she’s done her best to shelter Stevie from most outside activity, other than a community music therapy group. She lashes out at Vince for connecting with her teenage son and forbids their jam sessions. Frustrated but undeterred, Vince tries to enlighten her: Stevie is a talented drummer who needs exposure and deserves the opportunity to be seen and heard in the local music scene.

In the same Guardian interview, Matsuura explains she didn’t want to portray Amber as the clichéd overprotective mother; rather she sees Amber as “steely and emotionally attuned, an effective advocate for her autistic son. Amber’s concerns about Stevie are grounded in experience.”

Clearly worried about Stevie’s ability to perform in public, she fears his autism might overwhelm him when he plays for a large, rowdy crowd. Vince eventually confronts Amber in the music therapy group and challenges Stevie to join him in a gig at a local popular club. Stevie is game, but his mother is still reluctant to let him play in public.

Although there’s a slightly predictable feel to the story, it doesn’t detract from the underlying message of redemption and friendship between two unlikely characters, both ostracized and marginalized but for very different reasons. Family, friendship, fame and forgiveness are underlying themes in this little gem of a film. It’s poignant and heartwarming, with a gritty edge thanks to the refreshing performances of all.

And let’s face it, the music is damn good.

Watch “I Used to Be Famous” streaming on Netflix.

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