Heading to the theater this week, it seems we have a competition between the sublime and the ridiculous…but it isn’t much of a competition. On the ridiculous end of the spectrum is ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E’. As one of the original TV show’s biggest fans, I had high hopes – but low expectations – for this remake by one of my favorite directors, Guy Ritchie. Unfortunately, my expectations weren’t low enough. ‘UNCLE’ is a hot mess that simply can’t decide what it wants to be: campy spoof, Bond rip-off, music video or Showtime special. Ultimately it fails in most respects. There are a few nice set pieces and a couple of good chase scenes. But without a consistent tone you just end up confused. Too bad.
And so we turn to the sublime – that is, if you can call a loud, aggressive, profane, in-your-face film about the birth of hip-hop in the 1980’s sublime. Yes you can. ‘Straight Outta Compton’ (‘SOC’) is an amazing film, even for an old white guy who was working on his golf game while cities where going up in smoke from racial tensions in the 80’s. And what makes this the perfect film for our time is that everything old is new again. What is happening in Baltimore, Cleveland, New York and Ferguson – not to mention hundreds of other cities and towns around the country -- provides the perfect context in which to view ‘SOC’.
“Straight Outta Compton’ is the story of the rap group N.W.A., and references their origin story and their first studio album, released in 1988. It offers an intense, but balanced view of the conditions that fermented the angry, provocative music that ignited a movement and a radical shift in musical style. Based in the dance clubs of the period, in which DJ’s would create ‘beats’ by manipulating recordings, rap then developed with singers delivering lyrics over the beat. With Dr. Dre as the beatmaster, Eazy-E as the moneyman and promoter (and you can just imagine where that money came from), and Ice Cube as the writer, N.W.A (with the addition of DJ Yella and MC Ren) come off the streets of Compton, California to form the first successful rap group. Using what they see on the streets – drug use, prostitution, police abuse and futility – to drive their music, the group is ‘discovered’ by small time record producer Jerry Heller. Heller uses his connections to get the group a recording contract, and hip-hop/rap is released on the world with a vengeance, both through N.W.A.’s records and a countrywide tour. What follows is a classic popular music story that we have seen with hundreds of groups through the years: record company malfeasance, clashing egos, artistic vision and greed drive the group apart, but the music lives on and becomes a cultural force as it is adopted, adapted, refined and reinvented by other artists.
‘SOC’ is an excellent film on many levels. First of all, it is a powerful drama: a compelling story of artists striving to be heard in the face of cultural resistance, family demands and their own egos and visions. Second, it is a documentary of the period: an analysis of the desperation, suppression and poverty that drove rebellion and violence in poor black communities; and of the growth of an industry with all of its warts exposed. And third, it is a ‘musical’: a rowdy, raucous, presentation of rap in the studio and in concert. SOC is a master class in what it is and where it came from, with reference to most of the premiere artists of the period – Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur and others. They were all together in the studio at a point in time, and we see and hear them as they develop their particular sounds. This combination of factors and the many levels on which the film succeeds, makes it more than just the movie of the moment. It makes this a film that, I believe, will endure and which deserves the attention of filmgoers, even if they have no interest in rap or hip-hop.
One of the other things that makes ‘SOC’ so compelling are the performances. As with any film that portrays living characters about whom we have photos, video and recordings, the message of the film can get lost in the distraction of the actors. Here, we have spooky-good performances by actors who closely resemble and mimic their characters. Some of this is excellent casting: for example Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre, R. Marcos Taylor as Suge Knight and Keith Stanfield as Snoop Dogg are perfect in their roles. But some of this is the luck of genetics: O’Shea Jackson, Jr. is the reflected image of his father, Ice Cube. His portrayal finds the energy and anger of his father -- although I imagine his upbringing has not been quite as challenging. Unfortunately, the ‘known’ actor in the film, Paul Giamatti, delivers a pedestrian performance. Giamatti needs to find something other than scumbag music producer/agent/doctor to play – this is his third or forth in just a few years and it is wearing thin. Having seen ‘Rock of Ages’ and ‘Love and Mercy’, I could hear very distinct echoes of the same line readings in ‘SOC’.
Skip ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ and give ‘Straight Outta Compton’ a look. To be clear, this is not for the prudish or faint-of-heart. The film is exceptionally profane, highly misogynistic and disturbing on several levels. But it is the life and music of a generation that has influenced our culture in many ways -- not to mention a bit of déjà vu that we are seeing on the news too frequently. That deserves your attention.