Monday, June 06, 2016

OVP: Straight Outta Compton (2015)

Film: Straight Outta Compton (2015)
Stars: Jason Mitchell, Corey Hawkins, O'Shea Jackson, Jr., Aldis Hodge, Neil Brown, Jr., Paul Giamatti
Director: F. Gary Gray
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Original Screenplay)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

One of the biggest awards surprises last year, and one of the biggest box office surprises for that matter, was the stunning victory of Straight Outta Compton.  While the film failed to secure a Best Picture nomination (which was much lambasted in the #OscarsSoWhite campaign), it did score a nod for Best Original Screenplay, a major coup for a film about the rap community in the early 1990's, considering that most AMPAS voters had probably never heard of Eazy-E or NWA.  I will admit that most of my contextual knowledge here was pretty loose.  I was slightly too young for this period of music history (I came of age just after, and I think you needed to actually be there for this period to resonate with you considering the political ramifications of NWA and its impact on the larger culture), so my touchstones with Ice Cube and Dr. Dre are, like many Millennials, the Friday movies and overpriced headphones, respectively.  Still, I always like a good history lesson, and so I settled into Straight Outta Compton, a film that definitely provides that context, though it still falls short in its musical biopic roots, telling the same old story even when I was hoping I might get something more.

(Spoilers Ahead) The problem with this genre is that it's relatively played out.  We have seen the musical biopic so many times at this point we know the entire thing by heart-it's like a Batman origin story, all the pieces are played together in the same routine.  We'll see some star we know will make it and a relative or teacher yelling at them to get their life together, saying "you have to stop dreaming" when of course we know that that dreaming will soon entertain the world.  We get that, in fact, during the opening scenes where Dr. Dre, then a young man, is yelled at by his mother to get a real job and stop pursuing his musical career.  We see that with the origin stories of classic songs that may or may not be real, but surely make for interesting padder.  We see that in the way that you meet clearly sketchy people (really-Paul Giamatti's ability in front of the screen continues to get more and more bloated-the man doesn't appear capable of playing a character who isn't a scenery-chewing "prestige" role anymore, and it's gotten to the point where I can't understand why he was hailed as a great actor in the first place) who help build up these talented young men.  And we see that when drugs and sex bring about their downfall.

The film does all of these things we know will happen even without context, and while this may be the truth (considering that Dre, Ice Cube, and Tomica Woods-Wright were all producers as well as characters in the film I assume that we see what largely happened, or at least a rose-colored glasses version of it), it makes for relatively boring cinema.  The last time I saw a musical biopic that felt fascinating was I'm Not There, and that was partially because it wasn't an actual biopic but really a fictionalized tale of Bob Dylan's life, so you could unexpected stretches and hold parts of the truth.  The musical biopic, much like the western in the 1960's, is in desperate need of reinvention because here it's still just the same old story, told over and over again.  The acting is pretty good, particularly O'Shea Jackson, Jr. playing his father onscreen and Keith Stanfield, whom you'll hopefully remember from the brilliant Short-Term 12 is terrific in a bit part as Snoop Dogg (I literally didn't realize that was Keith Stanfield until I just wrote this sentence, and now am giddy for jotting down while watching the film that he was my favorite part).  However even the acting is just okay.  I think that Jason Mitchell underplayed his part as Eazy-E, the rapper tragically brought down by AIDS in the mid-1990s as the last thirty minutes of the film felt more like a eulogy for people who missed him some twenty years later and less like an actual cinematic experience.  The idea that no one, save Suge Knight and Jerry Heller, ended up looking bad in the end of the film might have meant that the producers of the film may have needed to look at the story a little bit more contextually-Dr. Dre and Ice Cube by far come across as in the right in nearly every scene they're pitted against another figure in the music industry.  This lack of objectivity and originality makes the nomination for writing a bit puzzling in my opinion.

The saving grace of the movie is the music, as the soundtrack to the film is electric and shows why these rappers had such a major influence over music and the hip-hop industry over twenty years ago.  Performances of some of the biggest classics from the era, including "Fuck the Police," "Nuthin But a G Thing," and the title track come alive in the movie, showing the raw energy that these songs had on an audience in a time of deep unrest in the criminal justice system (Rodney King and the LA Riots play heavily in the background of the picture).  It's become a glib cliche on my part to just say "buy the soundtrack" to musical biopics, but I genuinely recommend it as several of these songs got purchased quickly onto my iTunes library right after watching the film.  It is the saving grace, and perhaps a lasting tribute to the men behind the movie that their songs still resonate some twenty years later.  Unfortunately, the movie that frames them is not nearly as groundbreaking.

Those are my thoughts on this (very popular, so I know I'm in the minority here) movie.  What are yours?  What do you think it'll take for the musical biopic to get out of its slump?  Which of these young actors will become a household name in a few years?  And where does this rank on your original screenplay lineup from 2015?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

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