Saturday, August 22, 2015

Straight Outta Compton / *** (R)

O’Shea “Ice-Cube” Jackson: O’Shea Jackson, Jr.
Andre “Dr. Dre” Young: Corey Hawkins
Eric “Eazy-E” Wright: Jason Mitchell
Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby: Neil Brown, Jr.
Lorenzo “MC Ren” Patterson: Aldis Hodge
Tracy “The D.O.C.” Curry: Marion Yates, Jr.
Suge Knight: R. Marcos Taylor
Tomica: Carra Patterson
Kim: Alexandra Shipp
Jerry Heller: Paul Giamatti

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by F. Gary Gray. Written by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff and S. Leigh Savidge & Alan Wenkus. Running time: 147 min. Rated R (for language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence and drug use).

Despite the conservative political push of the 80’s lead by the Reagan White House, that decade was a particularly progressive time in which to grow up. As a child of the 80’s, I was heavily influenced by pop culture and heavily invested in the politics centered around it, more so than I even realized at the time. Tipper Gore’s heralding of the Parental Advisory label that was adopted by the recording industry seemed a tumultuous event in the eyes of a wide-eyed, music-obsessed prepubescent. Later, the banning of 2 Live Crew’s controversial “As Nasty As They Wanna Be” album was a neon sign of the times that most certainly were a-changin’ despite the wishes and desires of the conservative right. In the middle of all of this, heading the charge was a rap group from Compton, California that managed to bridge the gap between many of our diverse cultures in this country by introducing, not just the black community to gangsta rap, but the entire country with their debut album “Straight Outta Compton”.

Sadly, almost 30 years after N.W.A’s seminal album began the tide of change by exposing to the world what much of the black experience in America was like, we still find ourselves struggling with the same issues of misunderstanding the racial divide and dealing with the same issues of racism that were at the heart of what inspired those musicians at that time. Perhaps it is fitting then that now is the time that we finally get to see a movie chronicling the struggles of those musicians in a film that shares its name with their debut album. “Straight Outta Compton” brings to fruition many years of work by the two most successful members of that group, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, to bring their story to the silver screen. As such, it doesn’t seem the harshest examination by the men it is mostly about, but it is an intriguing and entertaining document on one of the most influential bands in modern music.

The film opens in 1986, just before the core members of N.W.A. (an abbreviation of Niggaz wit’ Attitude) decide to form their rap crew. These opening scenes remind me a great deal of Clint Eastwood’s pop music musical from last summer “Jersey Boys” in the way it introduces us to these artist with their dreams already fully formed, just on the cusp of having them realized. We first meet Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, who is not a man with a dream, but seems trapped in the only life presented to him of pushing drugs and trying to avoid the police. When his friends offer him the chance to use the money he’s earned on the streets to pursue their music dreams with them, it comes as a relief to Eric, who seems to understand better than some that his lifestyle has no future that doesn’t end badly.

Andre “Dr. Dre” Young is obsessed with music to the point where he misses job interviews set up by his well-meaning mother just to immerse himself in sound. O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson is the poet of the group and writes like one, always incorporating his own personal experiences into his lyrics, however frightening or depressing. Cube and Dre use Dre’s gig as a club DJ to try out Cube’s lyrics and Dre’s beats on live audiences to the disparagement of the club’s owner. That is until they convince E to invest some money in some studio time and force him into the sound booth to record the vocals.

Their album is a success, credited to Eazy-E as the artist, and so their downfall begins even before their rise does. A music manager named Jerry Heller, played to excellence by Paul Giamattti, gets his claws into E after the success of their album and wrangles his way into taking the whole crew on under E’s Ruthless Records label. This brings the audience into one of the more exciting sequences of the film as director F. Gary Gray and his screenwriters sweep us into the thrills of their success. The band’s songs cross boundaries and send them on a national tour to support the album. Gray shows us the inspiration and recording of their greatest hits, including the title track “Straight Outta Compton” and “F*&% the Police”. I remember there was a kid who was not loved by my own crew of friends in high school and every time we passed his house we’d sing “F*&% the [insert family name here]” with someone acting as beatbox and everything.

I am reminded of “Jersey Boys” once again in the way Gray treats the material as almost a musical of sorts, filling his soundtrack with the band’s songs and using them to show their own progression, including their solo efforts after Cube leaves the group. We’re even shown some of the other influential talents they produced and inspired, such as Snoop Dogg and 2 Pac and the origins of some of their biggest hits. Suge Knight is presented here as the cause of much of the rift between the three core members of the crew. While his reputation backs up much of what we see here in the opportunistic way he divides the artists and runs amok with his and Dre’s own label Death Row Records, Suge makes for an easy scapegoat for much of Dre’s alleged sins, of which little is represented here and Dre excuses himself with but a line about his regret.

While both “Jersey Boys” and “Compton” avoid much of the personal lives of their subjects, Eastwood’s examination of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons does a much better job of getting into the psyches of the artists. I would’ve liked to get to know E, Dre and Cube much more than this film allows. The three, until now unknown, actors playing these monster personalities do an amazing job with what they’re given. Cube’s own son plays him the film. While the relationship between these three are fairly thoroughly explored, they spend too much time working separately for the film’s rather fleeting representation of the other relationships in their lives. E’s relationship with Jerry is one of the focal points of the film, but the writers never explain to satisfaction just how Jerry so successfully turns E away from his friends, the men who first put him in front of the mic. I also would’ve like to know how these artists were formed into the men they are at the beginning of the story. E’s street life is once again the most satisfying of the three backgrounds as it is a story we’ve seen before. While we’re given a taste of Dre’s family life before N.W.A., it never explains how music became his obsession. We are given absolutely nothing about Cube’s life before music, although it presents him as a family man after his solo and film successes.

Although music played a big role in my life from an early point, I wasn’t much into the gansta rap scene at the time when these legends were working their magic. I did give Ice Cube’s first solo effort a few spins with my best friend’s encouragement, however. My complete immersion in the popular music scene has developed my appreciation for N.W.A. as the pioneering artists they were. As such, I desire a fuller portrait of these artists than what is presented here. “Straight Outta Compton” plays more like a greatest hits compilation than a complete discography. Still, those are some amazing tracks, and it’s worth giving this one a spin.

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