Thursday 10 September 2015

Review: Straight Outta Compton

Year: 2015
Director: F. Gary Gray
Screenplay: Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff
Starring:O'Shea Jackson, Jr, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti

Synopsis is here:

Telegraph Film Critic Robbie Collins; amusingly tweeted the environment of the press screening of Straight Outta Compton in which critics were treated to Eggs Benedict (seriously). A later tweet hilariously likened the screening audience to Seinfield's apartment; very white bread. It’s easy to dread to think about what views were flying around. Often when heading to some screenings I gain a sense of faux progression. It’s hard to shake off the sneaking suspicion that everyone is going to clutch on to their valuables if I sit too close to them. I mean, let’s be fair, I'm usually wearing a hoodie.

Such things are of invested importance when watching a film like Straight Outta Compton, which, while holds a closer relationship with the glossy, Sean "Puffy" Coombes produced biopic Notorious (2009), actually holds underpinnings of John Singleton's Boyz in da Hood (1991). The Ice Cube and West Coast connection are certainly not the only elements that bind those films.

A muscular and accomplished piece of storytelling, F Gary Gray's Straight Outta Compton explodes right out of the blocks with the kind of drug dealing sequence that wouldn't feel out of sorts if placed in the Hughes Brothers' debut Menace 2 Society (1993). What follows afterwards is a sprawling, textured history of one of the most influential bands of the genre of hip-hop; N.W.A. Compton follows the tropes of a typical rock biopic in terms of structure, but the weight and the relevant tone of its subjects elevate the film to a particular level. This cinematic rendering of one of rap's biggest super groups has been considered the "Black Avengers". This is a strange term which tries to mould the film within recent comic book adaptations. Such a description comes off more like a trendy term trying to attach a certain type of relevance, although the film often captures the fantastic aspects of the group's meteoric rise from underprivileged and oppressed youths to millionaire rap stars.

This is a rap version of the rock bio that plays out in board strokes with its producers (who are also the subjects of the film) are clearly mythologizing themselves in a light which draws them into a far more sensitive light. However, it's important to realise what the film's intentions are. Much has been said about the exclusion of the Dee Barnes' violent altercation with Dr Dre from the film, which was originally scripted. In fact the films entire reading of women is best described as "problematic".  In this film of young, flawed, disfranchised black male youths, the treatment of women within the frame is discouraging. Representation ranges from objectionable to confounding. Some sequences put the antics and debauchery of Entourage to shame. Meanwhile, long-term relationships with girlfriends/wives seemingly appear from nowhere, before being relegated to the background.

Yet while many of these criticisms should not be dismissed, the essence of the text must remain. While SOC depictions of women are insensitive, they could also be a strong observational representation of a group of angry, naive yet talented individuals. Condoning the actions is of course incorrect, but while it's reassessment of topical themes are important (we are looking at an 80's/90's story with 2015 eyes), the idea of reshaping elements to allow kinder gender politics may feel disingenuous here. Particularly to a rap group whose lyrics towards women were outwardly aggressive. That said, Compton does drop the ball somewhat by over smoothing the flaws of its protagonists to such a point that it lessens the complexities of the real life counterparts. Especially when we place Gray's position with the group during the time in which the NWA was active.  Easy E's promiscuous activities and Dr Dre's hostility towards women are only briefly glimpsed, if shown at all. Even in glossy biopics like Ray (2004) and Get on Up (2014) highlight the fractured relationships towards women that occurred, configuring their respective artists into tragic, flawed geniuses.

We must be reminded however that Straight Outta Compton is still a triumph of black male representation. This is an inversion of the brutal and fictionalised realities displayed by John Singleton and The Hughes Brothers. Updated with hopeful inflections and framed for audiences more interested in Hip-Hop than old style RnB/soul/funk. This is not only because the many subjects are still alive and still hold a level of relevancy and popularity, but also due to the film highlighting pathways that were only just hinted in the 90's and near dismissed within the universes displayed in the fictional urban movies of the past. Could we image poor, black L.A youths becoming billionaires? The fact is stranger than fiction, and the fiction needed to stay grounded.

From a directional point of view, this is Gray's boldest film, working closely with cinematographer Matthew Libatique, and providing striking and kinetic imagery to the story. Visually, the sheer scope of this film is impressive. The infamous "Bye Felica" sequence, which details the wild touring antics of the NWA, while controversial at its heart, holds choreography rarely even considered for a biopic such as this, let alone conceived. Libatique's usage of the 2.35: 1 ratio not only enhances the sheer scale of the concerts and the groups influence, but also help display the magnitude of the Watts riots the infiltrates the films second half. While the riots themselves only come across as a surface level framework for the film, it highlights the ambition that Gray is trying to achieve. Whereas Notorious remains focused on the subject of Biggie Smalls, Straight Outta Compton tries hard to place the group within a larger context. With the film reaching to pinpoint the growing tensions that still remain and still polarize America.

Credit must go to Grey's eye for detail, stemming from Eazy E receiving his shoelaces back from the cops after being arrested, to the diegetic music changes which occur after 1993. The subtle shift across states, may mean nothing to those not interested in hip-hop, but remind fans of the changing tones which happened at the time. There's also textual richness in casting which is highly notable, with many of the cast (both leading and support) being exceptional in not only their looks, but their mannerisms. This is the first time that the three leads have been given a chance to head up a production and all three are allowed to let their charisma flourish. Jason Mitchell and O'Shea Jackson Jr are the two standouts. Mitchell provides a depth to Eazy E's persona which allows the character to be more than just a pair of sunglasses and a high pitched rap voice. O'Shea's look and demeanor are so much like his fathers (Ice Cube), it's uncanny. Corey Hawkins is the weakest of the trio, but this isn't down to talent, but down to character. Hawkins' Dre is the most passive of the protagonists, which once again speaks towards what may have been left on the cutting room floor or script stage.

As mentioned by Scott Mendleson, Straight Outta Compton is the most unsurprising surprise hit of the year. Take away the fact that this is a story of a platinum selling music group, whose members have diversified into other arenas. Forget about the influence of the genre of music. Compton uses the tropes of the musical biopic and uses them exceedingly well. The fact that it continued to remain in its number one spot at the box office after the opening weekend, proudly shows its strong of word of mouth. Compton doesn't just raise the bar for the Rap biopic; it highlights just how universal and populist hip-hop stories can be. Hopefully its success may help stick a pin in the "urban movies for urban people" myth. What makes Compton illuminating isn't just the energy of its soundtrack or the knowing cameos, it's that the film takes hold of its story and tells it as boldly as it can. Something that critics of middle England and hoodie wearing rap fans like myself, can all agree, needs to be done when it comes to the movies.