Thursday, August 20, 2015

Movie Review: Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton
Directed by: F. Gary Gray.   
Written by: Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff and S. Leigh Savidge & Alan Wenkus.
Starring: O'Shea Jackson Jr. (Ice Cube), Corey Hawkins (Dr. Dre), Jason Mitchell (Eazy-E), Paul Giamatti (Jerry Heller), Neil Brown Jr. (Dj Yella), Aldis Hodge (MC Ren), Marlon Yates Jr. (The D.O.C), R. Marcos Taylor (Suge Knight), Carra Patterson (Tomica), Alexandra Shipp (Kim), Keith Stanfield (Snoop).

There is no denying that Straight Outta Compton is a musical biopic that hits just about every cliché of the genre – so much so that there are times where I couldn’t help but laugh and think about Jake Kasdan’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, which mercilessly sent up the genre. Like in Walk Hard, actors playing famous people come on screen and are immediately introduced to the audience in somewhat awkward dialogue, even when no introduction is necessary (do we really need the movie telling us that the giant bald man, in a red track suit smoking a huge cigar and looking mean is Suge Knight immediately after he appears on screen for the first time?), or when the movie overly simplifies the music writing process – so that in one scene the members of N.W.A. are needlessly harassed on the street by the cops, and then immediately afterwards Ice Cube writes what would become “Fuck the Police” – in seemingly 30 seconds flat. So yes, it is true, Straight Outta Compton is as clichéd a musical biopic as it could be – yet that only slightly diminishes the film itself, which is so well directed and acted – and, to be fair when it isn’t shoehorning in star cameos or simplifying the song writing process, written, as well as being a film that is both very much of the time and place the events came out of – the late 1980s, early 1990s L.A. hip hop scene, and yet completely relevant to what is going on in America today. There are other, more significant shortcomings to the movie to be sure (which we’ll get) – but the fact that it is as clichéd as it is, didn’t bother me too much.

The movie quickly introduces what will become the three main characters in the first three scenes – the first showing Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) in a drug deal that threatens to become violent before the cops show up and he has to flee, the next showing Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) listening to music, before being chewed out by his mother for not taking his life seriously, and the third with Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr. – playing his father) – as a teenager on the bus working on lyrics. The three already know each other, and Dre and Cube already have their goals in the music industry clearly defined. Eazy-E isn’t as sure – but he has the money. They decide to cut a song – and when the original group flees the studio, not understanding Cube’s lyrics, Eazy-E steps into the studio instead. The song becomes a local hit – and soon he is approached by Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) – who we get the feeling is an industry hanger on – someone who used to be big, but is now struggling. He thinks Eazy-E has something special – and it isn’t long before all of them – Eazy, Dre, Cube – and others are in the studio making what will become one of the biggest, and most influential, rap albums in history – Straight Outta Compton – and heading out on tour. Egos and money will eventually get in their way – and the movie keeps following them – together and separate – for about a decade.

The movie is at its best in its earlier scenes – when the whole N.W.A. is together, working on an album, going on tour, dealing with instant fame and money, the women who come along with that – not to mention the controversy that followed them, as the many thought their new brand of “gangsta rap” glorified crime, violence and drugs, and their controversial song “Fuck the Police” drew the attention of police everywhere they went, and even the FBI. Director F. Gary Gray – making his best film since Set It Off, nearly 20 years ago – goes full Scorsese in these scenes, with a camera that is constantly swirling around these characters. The concert scenes are wonderful, and capture the energy, passion and anger of the music. The movie becomes slightly more disjointed at the end of that tour however – when Cube refuses to sign the same contract as everyone else (thinking, correctly, that Heller is taking advantage of them) and leaves – a path that Dre will eventually follow as well. Without the chief songwriter (Cube) and musical genius (Dre), Eazy-E starts to fall on harder time, while Cube goes off to a more successful solo career, and Dre gets into producing, and eventually falls in with Suge Knight.

The three main performances in the movie are all excellent. There’s no denying that O’Shea Jackson Jr. takes after his father – he looks a lot like of course, but also nails his vocal mannerisms, and has mastered his various looks of outraged anger. Hawkins gets the more serious Dre as well – he’s less vocal than the rest of the group, more committed to the music and producing, and clearly the most visionary. Best of all is Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E, who has a lot of heavy lifting to do, going from a fun loving hedonist, to someone paying for that.

The movie taps into the anger that fueled N.W.A. – an anger that is just as relevant now as it was then. It is impossible to watch the movie – with its various scenes of them being harassed by the police, and riots that greeted the Rodney King verdict – and not think of everything that has happened in the last year, starting in Ferguson, and spreading out across America. America likes to talk about how far they have come on race over the years – and there’s no doubt, they have come a long way. A movie like Straight Outta Compton however is a reminder of how, in some regards, nothing much has changed.

The movie has come under attack over the past week for its whitewashing on incidents involving Dr. Dre and violence against women, which the film doesn’t acknowledge at all, as well for the film’s glossing over the misogyny inherit in some of N.W.A.’s lyrics. The film does address – directly – the controversy around their lyrics for glamorizing violence, and even for one of Cube’s songs accused of being anti-Semitic, for its attack on Heller – but the film seems unwilling to grapple with the misogyny at all. The soundtrack seems to have been chosen carefully – only one song (which, I gather, is about sucking dick) is highlighted that crosses that line. To make matters worse, the film lacks any real female characters - only Eazy-E’s widow Tomica (Carra Patterson) is given significant screen time (not surprisingly, she, along with Ice Cube and Dr. Dre are among the film’s producers) – while the rest of the female characters are anonymous – and it does get a little tiring seeing scene after scene of what amounts to orgies, with woman in various stages of undress, that the movie barely acknowledges. A better, stronger, braver, more confident film would have tackled this issue in some way. It would have given its characters more complexity – and considering hip hop culture still struggles with misogyny today, would have been a riskier, yet more relevant choice. The movie is already long at nearly two and half hours – but other scenes could have been sacrificed for at least addressing the issue.

Still, Straight Outta Compton accomplishes what it sets out to do – and even if it is a whitewash of its subjects, well, most musical biopics are. The movie could have certainly been better than it is. Yet, it’s rare that a mainstream American movie addresses all the issues that the film does – in such a forthright way, and in such an entertaining package. Perhaps its success will lead to more movies like this (please, someone make a Snoop Dogg movie with Keith Stanfield, who first broke through in Short Term 12, who is utterly brilliant as Snoop in his few scenes in this movie) – and that they will address what Straight Outta Compton leaves out. What we have now however, may be imperfect, but it’s still something worth celebrating.

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