Friday, October 09, 2015

Straight Outta Compton (F. Gary Gray)

Straight time

F. Gary Gray's Straight Outta Compton starts out strong, with Eazy E. (Jason Mitchell) attempting a transaction in a horrorshow crackhouse complete with shotgun-wielding gang moll and a police tank (captured by helicopter-mounted camera flying overhead in a tremendous WTF moment) literally crashing the party. 

It later settles down to the familiar rhythms of the standard-issue musical artist biopic, introducing the rest of the group (Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre; O'Shea Jackson Jr. (looking remarkably like his father) as Ice Cube; Neil Brown Jr. and Aldis Hodge in supporting roles as DJ Yella and MC Ren respectively) and chronicling the moment when they cut their first significant single, "Boyz N' Tha Hood." Gray does manage to capture the understated thrill of people unwittingly acting out a historic moment: the scene is played with little fuss, a lot of textural realism, a funny minor detail (the original rappers leave because of a dispute over the lyrics and Eazy, drafted into doing the vocals, has to be schooled on attitude). So far so fairly well made. 

The film even has its required Mephistopheles: Paul Giamatti as Jerry Heller* approaches Eazy and talks him into founding Ruthless Records. Giamatti and Mitchell are consistently terrific in their scenes together as one plays best friend, father figure, and seducer and the other plays innocent waif and collaborating dupe--yes we've seen this story more than once before, but done well and skillfully acted it can still pack a dramatic punch.

*(This just after playing Dr. Eugene Landy, Brian Wilson's abusive therapist, in Love and Mercy--apparently when Giamatti pops up in your biopic you should immediately head the opposite direction. He's good in both, even manages to make both distinguishable characters, but performing the same essential function in two films is pushing it.)

Mephisto wields his magic, sort of (you might also say the group's drive and talent forged a record, and Heller rode on their coattails): their first album under the Ruthless label, the eponymous Straight Outta Compton, is a hit, and driving the album's success is the single "Fuck Tha Police," inspired by a harassment incident.

The middle I'd call the film's high point: the Rodney King video surfaces, the police responsible for his beating are summarily acquitted, and much of metropolitan Los Angeles is rocked (and not in a good way) by the rioting that followed. Suddenly the musicians looked like journalists who've submitted an early report on the violence in their corner of the city; suddenly the seismic upheavals in the rest of the world (LA being the media epicenter) seem in synch with the group's anger and nihilism; suddenly the film itself is a furious reminder that things haven't really changed, only hopped from city to city (Ferguson, Baltimore, New York). Gray doesn't push the connections too hard, just enough to raise the hairs on the back of one's neck as they unfold onscreen. Your reaction is more visceral than intellectual; you react nevertheless.

The latter half of the film falls into another familiar narrative, The Band Falling Apart. Around a year after N.W.A. is formed Ice Cube leaves the group over disputes on royalties Heller owe him and pursues a solo career; Dr. Dre leaves as well, and signs up with the equally shady Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) to form Death Row Records (the subplot outlining Dre and Knight's relationship is more than a little sketchily told). We have the requisite scenes of band members brooding, being threatened (and worse) by thugs if they don't sign up, experiencing money troubles, living the high life complete with drugs alcohol and gyrating women.

On those gyrating women--arguably the film's biggest problem is its failure to address the implicit misogyny in the group's lyrics and lives (Dr. Dre was charged with the severe beating of a female television host and settled out of court). Arrests and lawsuits are of course a part of being a celebrity which the film openly if loosely acknowledges; arrests and lawsuits involving the assault of women is a somewhat different other creature, on which the film is unfortunately silent.

The film's also silent on the group's sister act, Ruthless Record's female rap group J.J. Fad, whose hit single "Supersonic" (released months before Straight) helped established Ruthless' reputation. Not that everyone or every group involved has to be given equal time onscreen, but the boys in N.W.A. actively collaborated with the girls in J.J. Fad on their music--as Dana "Baby D" Birks put it in an article: "They were our family. They were like brothers." Telling even a few minutes of their story could have helped counteract the accusations

Then the final tropes, The Dying Artist, The Disillusioned Artist--Eazy is told that he has HIV; his wife Tomica confronts him with documentary evidence that Heller has been cheating him (probably the only moment in the film of a woman fulfilling a function other than background ornamentation). Mitchell is strong in these scenes: his bewilderment at learning the virus is not exclusive to homosexuals (good point nicely quietly made), his anger and bitterness and despair, his eventual acceptance of his end--nothing really new, told well enough that it's difficult to really object. 

First published in Businessworld 10.2.15

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