Skip to main content

Speak a little truth and people lose their minds.

Straight Outta Compton
(2015)

Don’t believe the hype. For Straight Outta Compton to be as good as its acclaim from some quarters suggests, it would have to be some kind of fundamental reinvention of the biopic, that most moribund of genres. Instead, it’s a fairly standard-issue telling of NWA’s rise and disintegration, made with journeyman lack of flair by F Gary Gray. It lucks-in with a series of standout performances, however, so much so that the veteran of the cast, Paul Giamatti, looks vaguely like the one who’s going through the motions.


And for getting on for 90 minutes (I saw the director’s cut), Straight Outta Compton is at least in the top tier of scaling-the-ladder-of-fame stories, carried along by natural narrative energy; not unlike a sports biopic (I’m no great sports fan and I’m not great rap fan, Tone Loc aside), you don’t have to relate to the subject matter if the storytelling is there.


Gray isn’t the kind of director who can work marvels with material, but he can service it effectively enough. Which is why, when it comes to the second half of the picture, as the main players go their separate ways and the focus divides and falters (rather than, when they were together, offering complementary ensemble), he’s unable to bolster the proceedings. One wonders at the decision to procure him for Fast 8, since a heightened quality is just what that series demands; Vin Diesel’s executive decision to go for realism may not reap the dividends he hoped.


As always with a biopic, you can’t get too shirty over what it plays fast and loose with; that’s what documentaries are for (and even then…) When the subject matter is recent and the (most of) the subjects are living, and one of them produced the thing, it becomes even more likely that the treatment will skirt controversial depictions of its heroes. So the group are rambunctious rather than actively misogynistic (or homophobic), with Dr Dre only ever inflicting violence on men. Indeed, he comes across instead as the man with his mind on higher, artier things, which given his creative legacy is perhaps understandable.


Corey Hawkins’ sensitive performance is perfectly pitched in that regard, comparing and contrasting to Shea Jackson Jr (a remarkable study of his father; or, he’s simply very much a chip off the old block) as Ice Cube and Jason Mitchell as the ill-fated Eazy-E. Everyone else, Giamatti’s nefarious manager aside, is more or less window dressing and background texture. Which again, makes sense. The bane of biopics can be how painfully linear they feel, and with three main characters, Straight Outta Compton at least avoids coming across quite so overtly so.


The screenplay (credited to four different writers, all of them white, as per this year’s Oscar diversity controversy highlighting its lack of recognition outside the Best Original Screenplay category; although, I’d argue such standard biopic fare as this was lucky to receive even that nod) gets the “positive” legacy controversy down, particularly in respect of Fuck Tha Police and being on the receiving end of police harassment and violence, as they spearhead the explosion of “this whole reality rap shit” that the most of the music industry was keen to dismiss. Bring in the FBI, attempting to hoover up their lyrical pronouncements with threats (“Maybe we should be happy. This is free publicity for NWA”) and the manipulations of manager Jerry Heller (Giamatti), and you have a potent brew, making for engrossing cinema.


But, following Ice Cube’s split, and then Dre’s alliance with Suge Knight (R Marcos Taylor), the picture has problems maintaining its verve. The in-fighting (Cube responds to NWA’s sleights lyrically) never feels truly combustible, and when Suge beats a man over a parking place, to Dre’s aghast response, it’s positioned as coming out of nowhere rather than something that must have been brewing all along. 


It’s fun to see cameos from soon-to-be rap legends (Snoop Dogg, Tupac), and the picture does sign off at a (rather perfunctory) point where it would be interesting to witness the furtherance of their careers (well, Cube’s spiral into a very variable roster of acting roles, not so much, although xXx: State of the Union would no doubt be a high point), but it becomes clear post the fact it has been listing alarmingly, its through-line (the death of Easy E, the potential reformation of NWA) simply insufficient emotionally or narratively to support it. As biopics go, Straight Outta Compton is above average, but it’s still very much a biopic, with all the dilution, preformatting and playing it safe that entails.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

As I heard my Sioux name being called over and over, I knew for the first time who I really was.

Dances with Wolves (1990)
(SPOILERS) Kevin Costner’s Oscar glory has become something of a punching bag for a certain brand of “white saviour” storytelling, so much so that it’s even crossed over seamlessly into the SF genre (Avatar). It’s also destined to be forever scorned for having the temerity to beat out Goodfellas for Best Picture at the 63rdAcademy Awards. I’m not going to buck the trend and suggest it was actually the right choice – I’d also have voted Ghost above Dances, maybe even The Godfather Part III – but it’s certainly the most “Oscar-friendly” one. The funny thing, on revisit, is that what stands out most isn’t its studiously earnest tone or frequent but well-intentioned clumsiness. No, it’s that its moments of greatest emotional weight – in what is, after all, intended to shine a light on the theft and destruction of Native American heritage – relate to its non-human characters.

Sorry I’m late. I was taking a crap.

The Sting (1973)
(SPOILERS) In any given list of the best things – not just movies – ever, Mark Kermode would include The Exorcist, so it wasn’t a surprise when William Friedkin’s film made an appearance in his Nine films that should have won Best Picture at the Oscars list last month. Of the nominees that year, I suspect he’s correct in his assessment (I don’t think I’ve seen A Touch of Class, so it would be unfair of me to dismiss it outright; if we’re simply talking best film of that year, though, The Exorcist isn’t even 1973’s best horror, that would be Don’t Look Now). He’s certainly not wrong that The Exorcistremains a superior work” to The Sting; the latter’s one of those films, like The Return of the King and The Departed, where the Academy rewarded the cast and crew too late. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is the masterpiece from George Roy Hill, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, not this flaccid trifle.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

Poor A. A. Milne. What a ghastly business.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
The absolutely true story of how P. L. Travers came to allow Walt Disney to adapt Mary Poppins, after 20 years’ persistent begging on the latter’s part. Except, of course, it isn’t true at all. Walt has worked his magic from beyond the grave over a fairly unremarkable tale of mutual disagreement. Which doesn’t really matter if the result is a decent movie that does something interesting or though-provoking by changing the facts… Which I’m not sure it does. But Saving Mr. Banks at least a half-decent movie, and one considerably buoyed by the performances of its lead actors.

Actually, Mr. Banks is buoyed by the performances of its entire cast. It’s the script that frequently lets the side down, laying it on thick when a lighter touch is needed, repeating its message to the point of nausea. And bloating it out not so neatly to the two-hour mark when the story could have been wrapped up quite nicely in a third less time. The title itself could perhaps be seen as rubbi…

Everything has its price, Avon.

Blake's 7 4.1: Rescue

Season Four, the season they didn’t expect to make. Which means there’s a certain amount of getting up to speed required in order for “status quo” stories to be told. If they choose to go that route. There’s no Liberator anymore as a starting point for stories; a situation the show hasn’t found itself in since Space Fall. So where do they go from here? Behind the scenes there’s no David Maloney either. Nor Terry Nation (I’d say that by this point that’s slightly less of an issue, but his three scripts for Season Three were among his best).

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…