Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Straight Outta Compton

Alternate Title:  The Most Dangerous Men in America

One sentence synopsis:     Young rapper Ice Cube, DJ Dr. Dre, and drug runner Eazy-E get together to produce NWA, and change the world of Hip Hop.

Things Havoc liked:  By now, dear readers, you all have learned, I hope, to trust my judgment on all matters cinematic, in deference to my many years of dearly-bought experience on the subject. But as a renaissance man of sober judgment and cultured taste, it would be depriving you all of a profound gift if I forebore to mention my expertise in all matters musical as well. I'm no Rolling Stone writer, of course, but I have made popular music between now and the far-flung days of 1958 my subject for a detailed musical analysis that generally serves to bore my friends when they're not mocking my awful taste (yes, I like Elton John. Shut up.) In the course of this musical project, one which I devised so that I could better understand the history of pop music in the context of its proper times and contemporaries, I have encountered, despite all the musical madness of the last sixty years, only three occasions when a musical group managed to produce something that instantly and irrevocably changed the musical landscape around them forever. One such occasion was in early 1964, when the Beatles arrived in the United States and more or less instantly banished everything that did not sound like the Beatles to the black hole of irrelevancy, kick-starting the 60s as a cultural thing in one fell swoop. The second, was in the winter of 1991-1992, when Nirvanna's second album, Nevermind, dragged the 80s out behind a woodshed and shot them in the back of the head, ushering in the age of Indie and Alternative rock for better or for worse.

The third was NWA.

Straight Outta Compton is the tale of the meteoric rise and fall of 'Niggaz Wit Attitude' (Or Attitudes. I've heard both), better known by their radio-friendly acronym, NWA, centered around three young black men in late 1980s Compton, lyricist and rapper Ice Cube, DJ and producer Dr. Dre, and flat out drug dealer and gangster (and frontman) Eazy-E. Over the course of less than a decade, these three, and a coterie of other, secondary rappers and artists, create a firestorm, producing a series of albums that blew the top off of gangsta-style rap in the US, and help create, promote, or inspire the careers of more or less every rapper you've ever heard of, a great many of whom appear in this film. They struggle against bitter, violent oppression on the part of the out-of-control LAPD in the leadup to and the aftermath of the famous Rodney King riots. They party and celebrate in the sudden explosion of wealth that they have access to for the first time in their lives, and fall out bitterly among one another over the proceeds of their works, culminating in violent beatings, dis tracks, and assorted bad blood. All along, other major figures of the Hip Hop world, from Suge Knight and Warren G to Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg float in and out of the picture, to say nothing of the other members of NWA, but the focus all along is on the three men at the core of it all, and all three of them, without exception, are absolutely fantastic. Corey Hawkins, a Shakespearean actor of no particular film pedigree, brings a sharp intelligence to Dr. Dre that is only appropriate for one of the smartest producers in music, a man who would go on to sell a headphones company to Apple for three billion dollars and discover most of the hip hop talent that any of you have ever heard of. Hawkins' Dre isn't a gangster or a thug, but a man with at least a semi-stable family locked in the violent ghetto of Compton, who escapes through DJing, and whose biggest goal simply seems to be working on his music, irrespective of the tempests around him. His counterpart Cube meanwhile, is played by O'Shea Jackson, Jr in an absolute dead ringer for the lyricist and rapper-turned-actor, something explainable perhaps by the fact that Jackson is the real Ice Cube's son. If anyone is the angry one in the group, it's Cube, whose bitterness at his life circumstances, his setting, his deprivation, and the way he is treated by everyone from the police to the rest of the group, is what fuels NWA's catalog, and the best praise for Jackson's portrayal might be the fact that he manages, through his acting, to make a song as incendiary as "Fuck the Police" sound totally normal just due to the fact that he's the one rapping it.

But the standout star of this film is Jason Mitchell, a total unknown with only bit parts to his name, who plays the third member of the NWA triumvirate, the late Eazy-E, the drug-dealing bankroller and frontman of the operation. Mitchell is flat out fantastic in this role, a hard-banging dealer and loanshark who turns his eye towards producing with the same ruthlessness that he brought to his previous life, plainly sharper than a razor, but equally plainly struggling to mentally escape the hell he came from. An absolutely standout scene midway through the film has him confront his alternately supportive and shady manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti, in another great role) with the fact that following a savage beating at the hands of another producer (R. Marcus Taylor as a menacing Suge Knight), he does not have any option but to outright murder his rival. The sequence is brilliant, with Heller desperately trying to talk the basic sense into Eazy that he is no longer in Compton, and rivalries like this are handled with lawyers and lawsuits, not bullets, while Eazy tries to talk to the basic sense into Heller that the world of Rap still is in Compton, and that handling matters like that would annihilate the credibility he holds so dearly. Both men understand what the other is saying and why he is saying it, but cannot get the other to see that it's their version of reality that must prevail for the thing they are doing to go on.

Up and down and through the lives of our three protagonists, the movie winds, through awful tragedies and bacchanalian celebrations, breakups and bad contracts, as the wider world of music and police brutality unfolds around them. Director F. Gary Gray has little to recommend him for a project like this (his last feature film was 2009's execrable Law Abiding Citizen) save for his personal association with the subject matter, being an old friend of Ice Cube and other figures in Hip Hop, who got his start as a director with Ice Cube's own Friday. As such, he is the perfect choice, deftly introducing legions of characters, many of whom the average moviegoer may have never heard of, being too young or too non-hip-hop-minded to know who these people are without the helpful, non-obtrusive introductions that the film supplies in the form of John Wick-style floating nametags. Gray's sure hand is evident as the movie manages to deftly handle the unavoidable topics of police brutality, violence, and censorship as NWA becomes, for a time at least, the most dangerous group in America, and their home town of Compton becomes, for a time at least, an open war zone. Though the temptation to do so must have been tremendous, never once does Gray let his film become an after-school special on why racism is bad, nor some sledgehammered lesson point on why "everything is still exactly the same". Instead, he simply shows LAPD's racism in the late 80s and early 90s in its full, blunt, oppressive, awful glory, through a series of standout, ultra-tense sequences and confrontations. Young black men are beaten, abused, harassed, threatened, and most of all constantly humiliated by a police force that despite all this remains entirely believable throughout. Rather than point fingers at the audience and shriek or exchange platitudes about everyone getting along, the movie gives the context of what happened in the years leading up to 1992, and lets everyone draw what conclusions they will, particularly from an evocative sequence from the King riots themselves, displaying the most famous shots of the period, while retaining the understanding that Fergusson and the BLM movement are both like and unlike what happened back then. While stupid people may (and will continue to) scream all manner of stupid things at Gray and the film's producers for alternately watering down or playing up the riots for political purposes, the effect within the film is near-miraculous. I'm about as far from the founding members of NWA as you can get in this country, in terms of race, background, musical tastes (and skill), and general attitude towards law enforcement, and yet I had strictly no difficulty understanding intrinsically why nobody in this movie would trust the cops for a red second, nor what would lead them to produce, distribute, and perform songs like Fuck The Police in the face of angry, violent protest from everyone from Tipper Gore to the FBI. Maybe that's more of a comment on me than the movie, but it is to date the only one of the literal hundreds of lectures, sermons, interviews, dramatizations, and angry Facebook denunciations that I've sat through to ever fully bridge that gap of understanding on a root, emotional level.

Things Havoc disliked:  This is ostensibly a truthful movie, not just in the sense of its subject matter but in the sense of a biopic in general, and so it's only fair for me to point out a few elements that are less than truthful. No, I'm not talking about MC Ren's sour grapes, nor the people who are inexplicably using this film as additional "proof" that Tupac is somehow still alive. I'm talking, rather, about the rather large number of women that Doctor Dre beat the hell out of over the course of his career, including one journalist about whom he once said that he could not understand what the big deal was, as all he did was throw her through a door (that's not all he did, but is indicative perhaps of something). Normally I don't have much use for arguments about how a movie is wrong for not being about a different subject, but the subject this time IS the three founders of NWA, and if the movie has time to present Dre as a genius producer and businessman (which he is), then it has the time to include something this important, unsavory though it might be to his reputation. It's not like the rest of the film is especially reverent when it comes to Compton's drug and gang problem, Eazy-E's previous drug dealings, Suge Knight's thuggishness, or Jerry Heller's contract chicanery. It leads one to wonder if the fact that Dr. Dre is a producer on this film has anything to do with the missing elements...

Other than omissions however, the only serious criticism one can throw at this movie is its structure and length. The film has no real end point or narrative arc. The three main characters simply go through their lives, rapping, writing, being abused and abusing one another, signing and breaking contracts, dissing and reconciling, until finally we are somewhere around 1996 and it's time to stop. A lot of biopics have this sort of problem, as real life isn't necessarily the sort of thing that fits easily into Three-Act structures, but one imagines, given the overall quality of this film, that something a bit tighter could have been put in place. The first half of the film is simply so well structured that it makes a meandering ending harder to understand.

Final thoughts:  Straight Outta Compton is one of, if not the finest musical biopic I've ever seen, a tour-de-force triumph that should by rights become the model of such films in the future. Eliminating the controversy and the topical nature of the themes at work, the film is simply a magnificent biography of three men and how they changed the world of music together and separately, crafted by a director who has clearly just produced his magnum opus. And yet to remove the controversy is in some way to miss the point, for without the need to have his characters sit around reciting homilies on how bad racism is to one another (I'm looking at you, Selma), Gray has made not only one of the best biopics ever, but also one of the more enlightening films on the nature of race relations in America, both in 1992, and, yes, perhaps today as well. In its aftermath we are left to draw our own lessons from what transpired and who these men were and what became of them, whether dead at 31 from AIDS or the richest and most successful music producer on Earth.

I've had it said to me that movies like Straight Outta Compton are what we need nowadays, in the aftermath of Fergusson and other high profile cop-on-black-men shootings. I'm not entirely sure that culture can or should be directed by perceived "needs" such as these, but by and large, having seen the film for myself, I have to agree. Not simply because of what Straight Outta Compton is about. But also because of how it goes about the business of being it.

Final Score:  8.5/10

Next Time:  The dregs of a pause before the storm.

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