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Saturday, February 27, 2016

Straight Outta Compton

As regular readers know, I do not get hip-hop. It may be cultural, or it may just be that I love a melody, and much of hip-hop is only rhythm, with no melodic qualities. I don't listen to rap or hip-hop, and therefore I skipped Straight Outta Compton when it played in theaters. It picked up an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay (the Oscar nominations it did not get were news) so I checked it out last night.

It's a decent film, but what it reminds me is that no matter what the genre, music biopics all have the same template--young kids come together, inspired by the music; they hit it big; they have internal struggles, either with money or women; they break apart; there is some sort of tragedy; and then, renewal.

So goes Straight Outta Compton, which is about gangsta rap, but is also a very familiar tale. The script focuses mostly on three members of the group N.W.A. (Niggas with Attitudes): Eazy-E, a drug dealer who has the money to finance the pressing of a record; Ice Cube, a gifted lyricist; and Dr. Dre, who is the musical genius. Also in the group are MC Ren and DJ Yella, but they don't get story arcs. One founding member, Arabian Prince, is written out all together.

All of them come from Compton, California, a ghetto were there isn't much hope for the young, and where  young black men are automatically viewed as suspects by the police (something that hasn't changed in the thirty years that has passed). They cut their first record, "Boyz 'n the Hood," and it gets the attention of Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who wants to represent them. He does business with Eazy-E, who trusts him, and this becomes a bone of contention, particularly with Ice Cube, who feels he isn't getting his money. It's another familiar thing in these movies, especially when they are about people of color, that some white guy is the impetus behind their success.

They hit it big, and after being hassled by police (including one black officer) while they are recording in Torrance, Ice Cube writes "Fuck tha Police," which causes all sorts of controversy. They even get a letter from the FBI telling them to cool it. This culminates in an arrest in Detroit for playing the song live, but since there is nothing more about it I assume it was thrown out in court, which it should have been.

Soon Ice Cube realizes he's not getting the attention he deserves and goes solo. A bodyguard, Suge Knight, worms his way in and gets Dr. Dre's ear, and they form a new company. Knight, though, is a menace, given to beating people for parking in his space. Dre sees this and has his doubts. E is shown by his girlfriend that Heller has been cheating them all, and fires him. But a persistent cough (like something out of Camille) is finally revealed as AIDS, which E died of at the age of 31.

This makes for a good story, though it's hard to know what's true. Heller, for his part, doesn't like it. It was produced by Ice Cube and Eazy-E's wife, so I'm sure that's why they are the prominently featured. It also makes for a good history of the genre, as we see a young Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur, who were nurtured by the members of N.W.A.

The acting is very good, especially Jason Mitchell as E and Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre. Ice Cube's son, O'Shea Jackson Jr., is also terrific, as well as looking just like his father. Giamatti, an acquired taste who can chew scenery, keeps it mostly together.

Some of the things overlooked in the film are Dr. Dre's treatment of women (he had a problem of beating them). The rap world is one that tends toward misogyny, and we see a lot of orgies, with women used as adornments. Women rap artists are not shown at all. It's an issue that perhaps needed addressing.

I kind of liked a few of the songs N.W.A. did, but I'm not ready to call myself a fan. The film does them justice as the innovators they were, even if it isn't terribly original.

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