Sunday, 24 January 2016

Film Review: Straight Outta Compton (2015)


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USA; 147 min.; biography, drama, history, music
Director: F. Gary Gray
Writing: Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique
Cast: O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti, Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge, Marlon Yates Jr., R. Marcos Taylor

Ice Cube: Yo, Dre.
Dr. Dre: What up?
Ice Cube: I got something to say.


As usual at the beginning of a new year it’s time to look back on the previous 12 months in film and honor the past year’s stand-outs. This is the task today’s manifold award shows and juries have taken on and should do to their best abilities. But, not for the first time, the most prestigious Academy Awards have left doubt about their selection of honorees. Amidst the #OscarsSoWhite uproar, I am taking a look back at one of last summer’s strongest performers at the box office:

Straight Outta Compton is the (auto-) biographical enactment of the rise, fall, and legacy of Californian hip hop group N.W.A. In 1986 four young guys from Compton, California set out to turn the frustration about their lives and opportunities into something creative. As west-coast pioneers of gangsta-rap their rise to fame and fortune is glorious and disapproval by the stiff, bourgeois society only contributes to their notoriety. But when money gets involved things get tricky. Various people want to ride the money train and friendships are lost. Straight Outta Compton shows the estrangement of the group, their individual endeavors and ultimate reconciliation at the deathbed of founding member Eazy-E (this story’s real, guys, so no spoiler alert needed).

The F. Gary Gray pic does a good job of setting the scene and creating an atmosphere. Police radio calls and news reports recreate the atmosphere of civil unrest in Reagan-era America. As an important back note to the development of N.W.A, these state-of-the-union testimonies introduce the sharp reality of the protagonists’ lives. Drugs, unemployment, early fatherhood, guns, and unjustified police brutality are the norm here. Dark shots and sharp flashing lights are a means of establishing a gritty and authentic picture. Yet stereotypical shots of “ghetto life”, of cruising and posing are not omitted either… When things escalate, camera movement and cuts accelerate and frames get up close and personal. As the group rises to fame, shots become more and more total, summiting in shots of bright stages and packed concert halls reflecting the grandeur of N.W.A’s success. There are parties and excesses to no end, but these flashy enactments are always cut against small-scale, closed-off shots of conversations, hinting that there’s always something deeper going on behind the shiny façade. While the movie is not free of clichéd depictions of sex and violence (as there may well have been in these circles), in general it does a good job of pulling you into the action, so that by the end of the movie (yes, guys, you were in fact watching a movie) you feel like you have been on that journey with the group.

And the group is exactly what this movie is about and what makes it so special. The dynamics between Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), DJ Yella (Neill Brown Jr.), and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) coming up together from nothing to the top of the business are refreshing and uplifting. When difficulties arise, you feel like you have been cheated, too, and then you feel almost sappily happy when the group reconciles at last. But hold up! – not all is brilliant and authentic here… As this is a biography you know there are some real people involved. When you then look at the producers (Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and the widow of Eazy-E among them) you know that these people are trying to create, legitimize, and manifest their legacy here in unblemished form. Who the main protagonists are is then also a given, but the way they try to stylize themselves is a bit too much at times: Eazy-E as the entrepreneur, Ice Cube as the poet and independent thinker, who stood up for his rights, and Dr. Dre as the musical genius with nothing but the advancement of his arts on his mind. A bit too neat if you ask me… Taking their depicted fostering of Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur, as well as a montage of real-life achievements after the end of the events depicted in the movie into consideration, it’s all a bit too much. Yeah, they did great things for hip hop, but the movie also sugarcoats or omits other, more violent and controversial aspects of their way to the top. And while Ice Cube, Dre and Eazy-E probably were the most successful of the bunch, I wonder how the rest of their crew feels about Compton.

The movie does a great job of depicting the main players in the form of casting, though. First of all hats off to employing a group of young and relatively unknown actors that none the less do a great job of portraying their characters. Their performances and looks fit to a tee and stop just short of mimicry. O’Shea Jackson Jr. had the slightly unfair advantage of studying his character up close and personal, as well as sharing his genes. Hence he has the attitude and can do the facial expressions and line delivery of his father almost like the man himself. Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre can do both: portray the sensitive, exuberant creative genius and the ruthless, quick-tempered nature of a man determined to make his way up. Coming back to those Oscar nominations from the beginning, Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E might have deserved a nod for best supporting actor. In his portrayal he shows the whole range from childish joy, when his friends forgive his past selfishness, to economic strategist, calculating thug, and a man sick and dying of an illness he saw as unmanly and humiliating. Mitchell gives a performance you can believe and that despite the extreme nature of events is never over the top. The group’s manager Jerry Heller is prominently portrayed by Paul Giamatti. As always he does a brilliant job of playing a cunning and egoistic psychopath that in its ruthlessness and scheming gives me the creeps. Neill Brown Jr. and Aldis Hodge give solid performances, but since their characters remain mere props for the story, so do they.

The strongest part of the movie is – who would have thought – the music. As the sole reason to why this motion picture was ever even made, N.W.A’s legacy looms over Compton. Yet, this isn’t a suffocating or strangling fact at all, but opens the door to a fresh way of storytelling. Events in the movie don’t have to be reflected or commented on in stifling monologues, but get put into rhymes that reflect the feelings of a whole generation. These extremely explicit, yet hauntingly honest lyrics and their passionate delivery serve to set the tone and ground the events in history like no other device. Elaborating on the genesis of staple tracks such as “Fuck tha Police” are some of the film’s most captivating moments. The movie features a mix of the actors’ own versions and N.W.A’s original recordings. Fans, as an added bonus, get remastered versions of once genre forming tracks. Songs that influenced the artists as well as an original score by Joseph Trapanese round off the soundtrack. Shame that this incorporation of “historic” tracks led to a snub in the original motion picture score category.

Straight Outta Compton was one of 2015’s smash hits – and no wonder: great shots, real emotions, and brilliantly true music left no movie-goer unmoved. This is no straight out street-life picture, nor is it your standard artsy music film, but it does have a good bit of both. Yet, it seems, this is not the kind of mix the Academy goes for. Although I haven’t watched all best picture contenders of this year yet, Straight Outta Compton would not have gotten my vote either. To me there is a little too much legacy building and glorifying of events at hand and not enough critical reflection on people’s extreme behavior and its consequences.  Nonetheless Compton is quality entertainment: its 147 minutes are diverting, you get to hang out with some cool dudes, and share their exciting journey. An amazing cast, that is nominated for a SAG award for best ensemble and should have received a nomination, if that category existed at the Oscars, delivers real performances. Compton recreates an era of societal problems and civic unrest that seems a little too close to our reality today. A widening gap between rich and poor and escalating police brutality make you feel like it’s not only the Compton guys that have been through all that, but that you could be a part of the story, too.


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