“It’s impossible to talk about N.W.A without talking about South Central LA in the late 1980s.”
Straight Outta Compton is the legendary album by gangsta rap group N.W.A, released Aug. 8, 1988. It’s a sonic blast that plays, as Rolling Stone said, like a “bombastic, cacophonous car ride through Los Angeles’ burnt-out and ignored hoods.” It became the first platinum album to reach that status with no airplay or major tours and now it’s also the title of a biopic that documents the group’s beginnings and turbulent history.
Writing for theverge.com, Lizzie Plaugic observed, “It’s impossible to talk about N.W.A without talking about South Central LA in the late 1980s.” Infected by crack and gang violence, the area was so rough the LAPD created a special unit known as CRASH — Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums — and it was these surroundings that helped birth the ferocious beats of Straight Outta Compton and a genre known as gangsta rap.
Music is unavoidably influenced by the surroundings of those who make it and music biopics have always been quick to use location as a shorthand to help the audience understand how and why musicians produced the music they did.
Just as South Central sets the scene for Straight Outta Compton, Manchester’s drug-fuelled “Madchester” club scene of the late 1980s and early ’90s informs 24 Hour Party People and the mean streets of Brooklyn set the stage for the meteoric rise of rapper Notorious B.I.G. in the 2009 film Notorious.
There is no shortage of John Lennon or his birthplace on celluloid. There are five official Beatles movies, documentaries like The U.S. vs. John Lennon, a 2006 movie that focuses on Lennon’s transformation from musician into antiwar activist, and even experimental short films like the John and Yoko shorts Two Virgins and Apotheosis.
Portrayed by everyone from Paul Rudd (in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story) to Monty Python’s Eric Idle, rarely has any actor captured both Lennon’s rebelliousness and vulnerability as Aaron Taylor-Johnson does in Nowhere Boy, the story of the musician’s formative years.
Taylor-Johnson, recently seen in blockbusters like Avengers: Age of Ultron and Godzilla, is aided in his performance by a gritty portrait of Lennon’s lower-working-class neighbourhood in Liverpool, England. You can almost smell the bangers and mash coming off the screen and the vivid Merseyside backdrop provides subtle clues about the man Lennon would become.
Set back when you could still drink a bottle of stolen booze in the shade of the Hollywood sign without being arrested for trespassing, The Runaways focuses on two glue-sniffing, glam-rock obsessed tough girls named Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) and Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning). Disaffected SoCal teens, they see an exit from their mundane suburban lives through rock ’n’ roll.
Unfortunately their ticket out comes in the form of impresario Kim Fowley, a record producer and self proclaimed “King Hysteria.” He cobbles together the band, trains them to be rock stars, convinced that they will “be bigger than the Beatles.” Before they can play Shea Stadium, however, the band breaks up — knee deep in ego, drug abuse and bad management. Set in and around the Sunset Strip’s late 1970s seedy underbelly, the movie perfectly captures the sun-dappled decadence that illuminated the time.
In the movies, like real life, it’s about Location! Location! Location!