Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Straight Outta Compton Movie Review

I fail to see what all the fuss and accolades toward Straight Outta Compton is about. Yes, it’s a good movie, well written and acted with a cast of mostly unknown and inexperienced actors. But as a musical biopic, what does it really bring to the table that hasn’t been done countless times before?

The story of the rise of the rap group N.W.A. from a group of friends making music together to a national voice for the powerless inner city black youths in America and FBI pariah is certainly not uninteresting. We’ve all heard of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. This is where they got their start. Eric “Easy-E” Wright died twenty years ago while DJ Yella and MC Wren are the lesser known members of the group. That Dre and Cube worked as producers on the project should not go unmentioned because it’s pretty clear in the film’s narrative which characters are highlighted most prominently. It’s also worth pointing out that their characters come off as the most morally upstanding while Eric Wright, no longer alive to defend himself, comes across (in spite of a lovely redemption at the end) as the instigator of strife within the group.

The movie’s arrival in 2015 and its popularity was no accident, but a perfect marriage of a film reflecting the present-day culture and news. In a time when black people being murdered by police officers is topping headlines and starting a national movement to change things, it should be no surprise that a movie that takes place more than two decades ago with a storyline that is fueled, in part, by police officers who abuse their powers became so prominent. N.W.A.’s most famous song, “Fuck Tha Police,” was a direct response to what these guys witnessed in Los Angeles.

As much as the subject matter behind the music is vitally important and worthy of exploration now perhaps more than ever, the film itself is poorly served by a run-of-the-mill story by Andrea Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge, and Alan Wenkus with a screenplay by Berloff and Jonathan Herman. They take their cues from other musical biopics. The guys come from humble beginnings and make a small mark with an initial recording. A manager, Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) becomes interested and signs on to make them stars. They sign with a label and produce a record and hit it big. Infighting and questions over royalties and who wrote what shake up the group. A member departs. The manager takes advantage. There is a reunification and reconciliation. We’ve seen all this before. And just because it might have really happened that way doesn’t make it any more interesting this time around.

There’s no doubt that director F. Gary Gray creates scenes of excellent tension and superb drama. There are moments depicting abuse of power and racial discrimination that got my blood boiling, a reaction I attribute to Gray’s staging and cutting as well as to the acting (Giamatti’s in particular in one scene). The young actors hired to play the members of N.W.A. demonstrate naturalness and ease on screen. O’Shea Jackson, Jr. is Ice Cube’s real-life son and channels his father’s charisma, vocal rhythms, and gestures. Corey Hawkins has poise, grandeur, and severity as Dr. Dre. And Jason Mitchell gets under Easy-E’s skin, bringing to life a brashness, a zeal for stirring the pot, playing him just on the edge of stability.

Most of the story plays like a compendium of stuff that these artists went through from the late 80s through the mid-90s. Closing, as it does, with Easy-E’s death from AIDS and a too curtly tacked on allusion to his push to bring awareness to the disease as something that could infect and affect anyone, feels unnecessary. The story would be better served being about certain core aspects of who and why these guys were so popular and so important at the time. The circumstances of Easy-E’s death don’t mesh with the story that the film spends nearly two hours crafting about the connection between social injustice and the need to voice your dissent artistically. In trying to capture too much, the film winds up hobbling itself just enough so that it crosses the finish line with a minor limp instead of a final burst of energy.

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