August 15, 2015

Movie Review: Straight Outta Compton

I must admit, I am not the biggest fan of hip hop. Sure, I have really enjoyed some albums, but for the most part I wrote it off as a youngster, never paying it any mind. I think it was just really a matter of timing and location. Metal and rock spoke to me more. However, as I have gotten older my tastes have greatly widened in terms of enjoyment and respect for various artists, styles, and genres. This is not to say I am well schooled on gangsta rap, its origins, or its artists, but there is a lot of positive to be said about it. This brings me to NWA, a group I know little of, but I do remember loving Dr. Dre's album The Chronic, as well as a number of Ice Cube tracks. Now we have a movie chronicling their rise in Straight Outta Compton.

Directed by F. Gary Gray, his first film since 2009's Law Abiding Citizen, Straight Outta Compton condenses the rise and fall of NWA and subsequent feuds and issues between members and record labels. The screenplay was written by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff (World Trade Center) from a story by S. Leigh Savidge (The Legend of Dolemite), Alan Wenkus (Private Resort), and Andrea Berloff. The end result is a fascinating look into the most dangerous band in America.

To be honest, while I really liked the film and feel it has an important story to tell, it is not one that transcends the genre. The biopic film, as a genre, is inherently a limiting one. This is not to say that there are not good, great, or creative ones out there. The thing is that, for the most part, you are left with a movie that boils everything down to broad strokes with moments of insight, recreation and mimicry paired with reorganization to assist cinematic dramatics. That is essentially what we have here, but there is a saving grace, the subject.

Think about who you think is ripe for the big screen biopic treatment, I am pretty sure you do not think of NWA. This is nothing against NWA or the importance of the story, it is just not something you can necessarily sell to a mainstream audience. With that said, the minute I saw the first trailer, I was hooked and new I wanted to see it. So, definitely credit to selling this to a mainstream audience. Now, I would not go in this looking for complete truth, but I think it covers it in broad strokes, and that is enough to get people interested in the reality of the story. Also, you have to consider that a lot of what happens in the movie relates to society today more than 25-years after these events began.

The movie is fascinating, shining a light on the group, how they came to be, and how people reacted to them. I can understand the negative reaction they received from the mainstream, not that I agree with it. The problem is the perception and understanding of reality. It is easy to listen to the lyrics and see them as glamorizing gangs, violence, and drugs. For many of us, myself included, we cannot relate to them as it is not the reality we experience when we step outside our doors. However, you have to put reality into context, they were writing songs that reflected their life, for better or worse. It probably would have been a better idea to listen to the lyrics, apply said context and then perhaps look into ways to make that reality better. That is a story for another time, too political for this venue.

Straight Outta Compton may run nearly two and a half hours, but it moves fast and doesn't waste any time. Frankly, I was surprised at how much they were able to get through in that time. We are introduced to all the players right up front, see their formation, the early recording, the first record deal, the first tour, and then issues that cropped up from contracts and how the money was managed. We even get to see Ice Cube go solo, Dre team with Suge Knight (a real life Immortan Joe from Mad Max: Fury Road is a description I have seen for him), and even Eazy-E's AIDS diagnosis. Through it all, we spend time with all the players, and the manipulative Jerry Heller (played with delicious sleaze by Paul Giamatti).

The acting is not always the best, but that is all right by me. In fact, I think it helped with the authenticity. It felt real, we are supposed to be watching musicians in their element, they aren't supposed to be good actors. So long as I believed who they were, that is what matters. I do have to say that the Ice Cube performance was rather eerie, since the role was played by Ice Cube's son and the resemblance is uncanny. I also think that Jason Mitchell gives the strongest performance as Eazy-E.

I definitely recommend Straight Outta Compton, no, not the best movie of the year, but it has something important to tell. It is a well made movie and takes inside (although certainly sanitized) the rise of NWA, gangsta rap, and how perception colors everything. Perceived reality is different from different perspectives. It sounds pretty obvious, but this gives a new perspective.


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