It’s clear what KSI: In Real Life is trying to achieve: separate the man (JJ Olatunji) from the persona (KSI), and end up with an honest reflection of the human, warts and all, but sometimes ‘warts and all’ just means warts and more warts.
This is a cautionary tale. I’m not sure those involved would agree. KSI: In Real Life thinks of itself as raw and uplifting, culminating in moments of resolution. While I suppose that is all somewhat true, the further you watch, the more you realise just how entrenched KSI’s problems are; money, loneliness, trust, insecurity, generational trauma and the fundamental contradiction between who KSI is and who KSI wants to be. In the end, the lasting sense is not that of inspiration, but of a rather immovable sadness.
Not everybody will draw the same conclusion. Realistically, this documentary is aimed at the legion of KSI fans, who will likely find it riveting. The UK’s biggest YouTuber gets the big-budget, behind-the-scenes, Prime Video treatment. His honesty throughout is admirable, as is his sheer determination in pursuit of success. Nonetheless, if you don’t worship him, the endless string of cliches ring hollow, his musings on life never nearly shrewd, unique or thought-provoking enough to warrant a feature-length film.
There’s no real storyline to KSI: In Real Life. It follows the star over around 18 months, jumping between locations and dates. His burgeoning music and boxing careers both come up, and it follows his relations with his family, but the lack of narrative means it meanders for long stretches.
Stylistically, it’s a strange jumble. There’s far too many fake computer screens, for one. KSI: In Real Life opens with an old Windows using a dated YouTube to watch cat videos, and continues to employ the tactic of on-screen screens throughout. Then there’s the subheadings – a little thing, admittedly, but they’re all the exact same size and font as the main title at the beginning. When locations show up, for example, they’re identical to the KSI: In Real Life that opens the documentary.
It was a relief, at the 55 minute mark, when KSI revealed he’d started seeing a therapist. Until that point, the questions almost tip-toe around the fact that professional help would be beneficial, and you fear this project was, in itself, KSI’s one cathartic outlet. Even then, it’s important to note the entirety of his adolescence and adulthood to date has unfolded on a screen, for the world to see, and though KSI: In Real Life seeks to provide a more authentic picture, you wonder why this quest for his happiness need be broadcast at all?
It’s an interesting one, for at the heart of this story is the internet and the generation of guinea pigs who came of age on it. Teenage KSI was the ultimate guinea pig; the digital lab-rat who broadcast often excruciatingly embarrassing moments to millions and millions of people, playing an obscene character to great commercial effect, but, evidently, lasting personal damage. He can barely bring himself to watch those videos now.
Having your controversial adolescence enshrined on the internet forever is not only to the detriment of KSI’s mental health, but hinders KSI: In Real Life as a documentary as well. Little of what you see is actually new. Amazon will benefit from rehashing family drama, but again, any sort of internal healing that this renewed look could bring KSI, would be better served out of the public eye – a place he’s never been.
Therefore, perhaps both understandably and inevitably, he’s riddled with insecurities. It’s clear just how warped KSI’s perception of his own value is. He doesn’t like how he looks; he doesn’t think he’s talented; he doesn’t like the character he played; he doesn’t like the relationships in his life; he doesn’t fare well in his own company; he’s desperate to please, needing to make people laugh; he’s relentless in his pursuit of the next success; he’s anxious and discontent. If this was all treated with more care and nuance, and not as something that needed to be resolved by the end of 90 minutes, it could make for a good documentary.
People will have their own opinions on KSI. He’s a bit like marmite, and, if nothing else, this documentary proves what an anomaly he is, defying almost every social law conceivable. He’s palpably uncool, makes objectively bad music, is only debatably funny and established an audience by playing, for lack of a better term, a ‘politically incorrect’ character. And yet here he is, swimming in cash, boxing big names, still incredibly popular on YouTube and the subject of eponymous Prime Video features. Frankly, whether he doubts himself or not, there’s enough people out there who believe in KSI for the success to keep coming.