Last week I saw the latest cinematic destruction…er I mean iteration of the iconic Marvel team, Fantastic Four. Instead of joining the heaping masses and explaining why I so disliked the movie, I thought I’d sit that particular fight out. Simply put it was just a bad movie and I don’t wish to dedicate anymore of my time to restating what professional critics have been saying for the past week. Here our my thoughts on the movie summed up for anyone who may be interested: I expected a super serious and brooding interpretation of The Fantastic Four to be pretty terrible….and I was right! Moving on.
Now I’d like to shift focus on a movie that I had little to no expectations on but was excited to see it none-the-less if only for what I expected to be a solid sampling of early 90’s hip hop for the soundtrack.
Rarely do I get a chance to talk about music on this blog. I tend to avoid writing about it because I have a harder time explaining why I like or dislike any particular piece of music, particularly hip hop. I can tell you artists I like, whether I think they have a good flow, good lyrics, etc but I can’t tell what definitively constitutes a great rap record. I can however what makes a good rap movie (at least in my opinion) and Straight Outta Compton walks a fine line of sharing the often epic and important rise of hip hop’s most influential band and being a walking talking two hour circle jerk for Ice Cube and Dr. Dre.
“In 1987, five young men, using brutally honest rhymes and hardcore beats, put their frustration and anger about life in the most dangerous place in America into the most powerful weapon they had: their music. Taking us back to where it all began, Straight Outta Compton tells the true story of how these cultural rebels-armed only with their lyrics, swagger, bravado and raw talent-stood up to the authorities that meant to keep them down and formed the world’s most dangerous group, N.W.A. And as they spoke the truth that no one had before and exposed life in the hood, their voice ignited a social revolution that is still reverberating today.” – IMDb.com
Before I get started, I want to stress that I largely enjoyed this movie. I have a few nit-picky problems, but overall I think it was a solid two hours of entertainment.
While I was not alive at the time, perhaps my favorite period in hip is the transitional period from “good time, fucking around with your friends” party music to something a little more serious. Sure there was always inklings of anger to the genre before N.W.A., such as Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” , and overall the inherent stupidity never really left as reflected today in the music of…”artists” like the following…
But it wasn’t until the late 80’s/early 90’s that rap got a little smarter, more refined, and a hell of a lot angrier. And perhaps no other artists better reflect this than N.W.A.. These five guys changed the game and are arguably the most important band in the genre. Without them, hip hop would be very different landscape, with songs almost exclusively about boats and hoes. There would be no Eminem. There would be no Kendrick Lamar. There emergence on the scene, their rise and fall, and in-fighting alone makes for one hell of a story.
I think the film’s biggest strength comes from its energy and its relevancy. The social unrest and rage pulsating from the late 80’s and early 90’s is not too dissimilar with what the country is going through now across the country. There is anger to N.W.A.’s music and it is absolutely palpable and the movie does a great job at setting the stage of a Los Angles waiting to burst, waiting on that one spark to set the whole country ablaze.
All of the young actors fit their respective roles rather well regardless of whether they look like the person they are playing, (This is more of a personal problem I have with any biopic that I need to one day just get over.) with the notable exception of O’Shea Jackson Jr. who has the added benefit of being the actual son of Ice Cube. Jackson nails his father’s likable arrogance and smart ass attitude but lacks the screen presence to make a more lasting impression. If there was a stand-out I’d say it was Corey Hawkins’ Dr. Dre, who probably gets the closest thing to an arc in the movie. Paul Giamatti is great (as always) as the band’s manager Jerry Heller but his wig is almost as bad as Kate Mara’s in Fantastic Four. What I appreciated quite a bit is that the movie refuses to demonize Heller. He did steal money from his artists, but without him they would have been able to break the door down for other rappers to follow suit and he is cast as almost a tough, morally grey, uncle. The same can’t be said for the actors playing police officers on display here who are all portrayed as racist assholes.
Right from the jump, it should be stated that at least three people involved in N.W.A. had a hand in producing this movie. Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Easy E’s widow Tomica Woods-Wright all share producing credits and the plotting of the movie heavily reflects this. (Noticeably absent is Dre’s history of beating women.) This becomes almost painfully clear during the credits where we see what the two did with the respective careers which ultimately comes off as a plug for Ice Cube’s movies and Dre’s Beats by Dre headphones as well as highlighting some of E’s antics throughout his career.
This is all well and good but it often leads to the negation of the involvement of key members of the band of which their are three: Arabian Prince, DJ Yella, MC Ren. All of these characters have almost comedically minimized roles perhaps suggested there may be some bad blood and/or inflated egos at play. Don’t get me wrong: Cube, E, and Dre were all crucial to the band, and have certainly had the most lucrative careers since they all went their separate ways.
Perhaps my biggest problem with the film was its overwhelming subtly.
Did I say subtly? My bad. I meant the exact opposite. This movie treats almost every dramatic beat or obvious instance of foreshadowing with the subtly of a firecracker going off in your nasal cavity. For instance, any time Ice Cube has an idea for a song it is treated as a GODDAMN EVENT.It reminded me of the running joke throughout Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story in which Dewey would get an idea for a song and it would be treated as some sort of earth shattering event. Then again it may be hard for me to take any musical biopic even remotely seriously after Walk Hard given just how well that movie parodied the format.
There is a scene in Compton not too dissimilar from this scene in which E first records “Boyz-N-Tha-Hood.” Hell, they even pull the old “hey another famous person played by someone who kind of looks like them” bit with Snoop Dog and Tupac. So yeah, I will concede it’s not necessarily this movie’s fault for traversing into self-parody by taking itself seriously because I am not mature enough to differentiate the parody from an actual movie. This movie doesn’t help matters by having Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) in an almost Satan like role. The guy is straight up evil but I highly doubt he is the over-the-top mustache twirler he is cast as here…but if he is please don’t let him know where I live.
Overall, this was a solid movie. Pretty boring for me to say but it entertainment for the most part and the parts I didn’t like weren’t big enough of an issue to warrant me hating on the film. I just wanted something with a little more “umph” much like the band reflected in it’s music. I may have preferred a straight up documentary or perhaps a movie showing the evolution of Dre and Cube from rebels preaching the struggles and tribulations of the common man to becoming the corporate establishment they fought so hard to rebel against originally. These days Ice Cube is better known as the lovable curmudgeon than the legitimate threat he represented to “the man” he made his name as.
To conclude if you are a fan of N.W.A., I’d say this is a pretty entertaining, albeit redundant and somewhat unnecessary movie as it covers well known grown. If you aren’t or have not been exposed to their music, I’d say give it a shot anyway. It covers a pretty important time in the country’s history as it still tries to find its feet on topics like race, equality, unfair perceptions, and even art.
I just wish this N.W.A. movie actually made me feel as enthralled, energized and enraged as N.W.A.’s music, and on that note…