oscar nom/film fatales #10: what happened, miss simone? (liz garbus, 2015)
oscar nom: winter on fire: ukraine's fight for freedom (evgeny afineevsky, 2015)

music friday/oscar nom: straight outta compton (f. gary gray, 2015)

A couple of days ago, I wrote about Liz Garbus’ documentary on Nina Simone, “The most important thing about a good documentary is the subject matter. If you are making a movie about the life and career of a singer, it helps if that singer has something special that makes an audience want to know more.” Straight Outta Compton is a “based on true events” fictional biopic, but what I said about the Simone movie holds here as well. N.W.A offer up a fascinating subject, and their place in music history is unquestioned.

I also noted that the best parts of What Happened, Miss Simone? were the concert sequences. And this holds true as well for Straight Outta Compton, as O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr., and Aldis Hodge do great work on the screen while the real N.W.A comes through on the soundtrack. The movie comes to life during those scenes, and at times, Gray places the songs in a context that illuminates both the songs and the times.

But Gray relies too much on the impact of those songs, which overwhelm the picture. I don’t want to take this too far ... it is clear in Straight Outta Compton why the music was so popular. But ultimately, Straight Outta Compton is a fairly standard biopic, and to the extent it mirrors the actual N.W.A, that suggests either that Gray is too reserved artistically, or that N.W.A weren’t as revolutionary as they once seemed.

It’s not a question of how accurate the movie is ... well, that is a big question here, but I’ll put it off for a second. We see how the group forms, we see how they click (there is a wonderful scene early on where the joy the band feels as they make music is delightful), we see what happens on their big concert tour, we see them begin to break apart ... accurate? Perhaps, but it also follows the traditional pattern of a hundred other biopics.

Also, Ice Cube’s early solo career is given plenty of screen time. He was the first to breakaway, and there is some good drama to be taken from that situation. But Dr. Dre’s later split is only presented as important in the context of the group. Even as we get an impression of Suge Knight’s imposing presence, there is practically nothing about the G-Funk sound Dre perfected on The Chronic. Which is fine, this isn’t a movie about G-Funk. But Dre seems less important than Ice Cube because there is less drama in the enormous impact of Dre’s sound. In the movie, Suge Knight overwhelms Dre once Dre goes off on his own, because Suge Knight personifies drama.

And then there’s the question of accuracy. It’s more about what’s missing than any particular misrepresentation of what we do see ... some facts are fudged, but not in any serious way. But there is nothing about the treatment of women ... Dre’s history of violence against women is ignored, the lyrics that are presented as important are usually either expressions of Compton life or disses of other members of the band (as if the misogyny of so many of the lyrics isn’t worthy of attention), and almost every woman on the screen serves as background flesh for party scenes.

Straight Outta Compton gets plenty of things right, though. You have to look between the lines a bit, but the early scenes establish Eazy-E as a “real” gangsta and Ice Cube as almost middle-class. But the movie shows how no young black men can escape the institutional racism that surrounds them. Ice Cube is a great writer and a strong rapper, and the setup for his writing of the pivotal “Fuck Tha Police” is the best example of how the movie places the music in context.

Later, there is a concert scene that shows how volatile the song is:

In scenes like this, it’s mostly irrelevant how close to “real” events the film is. What matters is how “real” the film is in showing the emergence of a song, with context, in such a way that it still carries power almost 30 years later.

I should note I watched the original version, not the “director’s cut” that may fill in some of the blanks. What is left out matters, and keeps Straight Outta Compton from being a great film. But, on the level to which it seems to aspire, that of a standard biopic, it is successful. 7/10.

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