Richard and CP24 anchor Jamie Gutfreund have a look at the weekend’s new movies, “Get Out,” the most original horror film to come down the road in some time, the melodramatic romance “A United Kingdom,” the zombie flick “The Girl with All the Gifts,” and the documentaries “I Am Not Your Negro” and “Dying Laughing. They also do some Oscar predictions!
Nominated this year for an Oscar as Best Documentary Feature, Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” draws from an unfinished book by novelist, essayist, playwright, and poet James Baldwin. Deeply personal, “Remember This House” was meant to be a remembrance of his friends and civil-rights titans Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, using Baldwin’s own words and a smattering of archival footage, the film isn’t a biography of the man but a biography of a lifetime of experiences, experiences that reverberate today.
As timely in 2017 as when the words were written in 1979, it’s a portrait of race relations in America, a place Baldwin calls, “a complex country that insists on being very narrow-minded.” To hammer home this point Peck uses archival footage from Baldwin’s lifetime as well as ripped-from-the-headlines images of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Black Lives Matter and Michael Brown.
With no talking heads Peck relies on news footage, movie clips and archival talk show tape, intercutting them with the fluidity of jazz. Posters and graphics punctuate the narration, subliminally driving home Baldwin’s points. More striking than the visuals is the arresting eloquence of Baldwin’s words. When he makes—and Jackson verbalizes—statements like, “To look around America today is to make prophets and angels weep,” it is impossible to not to be moved by both the beauty of the language and the underlying message.
Baldwin lived at a tumultuous time but as his words remind us, “History is not the past it is the present. We are our history.”
“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!
“Straight Outta Compton,” the new biopic of original gangster rap band N.W.A. and their turbulent rise and fall, is at once a very specific look at the birth of a musical genre and a universal music industry story about how money, ego and bad management will break a band a part faster than you can say, “Boyz-N-The Hood.”
We first meet MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr) as young men growing up in Compton, the most notorious neighbourhood of South Central Los Angeles. Dre and Cube are music obsessed teens, trying to avoid getting “locked up or laid down.” Dre is a genius DJ, a master of beats, while Cube is a journalist of sorts, writing rhymes that report on life in the hood. Their reality is near constant police harassment, casual violence and intimidation by gangs.
Eazy-E, a local drug dealer looking or a way out of the life, puts up the seed money to start a record label and soon he moves from banker to frontman and NWA is born. A couple local hits later they’re approached by Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti in another role, following this year’s “Love and Mercy” that sees him exploiting a Californian musician) an old school manager with a plan to make them famous and himself rich. They become a sensation, birth gangsta rap and fall to pieces under the weight of their success. Heller, Eazy-E and the shards of NWA on one side, Dr. Dre and Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) on another with Ice Cube completing the triangle. Bad blood and bad business deals blow apart their once tight relationships and it isn’t until they consider getting back to basics that old wounds begin to heal.
“Straight Outta Compton” plays like dozens of music bios that came before but despite featuring music industry clichés—sometimes the clichés of cheating managers, ego and excess are clichés because they’re true—it spends more time on the characters than the situation. It’s funnier and warmer than you might anticipate a movie about the ferocious and profane beginnings of gangster rap, a music born out of frustration and a need to be heard, but the emotional truth of the film is based in the relationship between the leads, particularly Dre, Eazy and Cube. A palpable sense of camaraderie is present throughout, and it grounds the film during its more excessive moments.
Mitchell’s Eazy-E has the widest emotional arc and he pulls it off, bring a steely vulnerability to the character that humanizes him and makes his (SPOILER ONLY IF YOU KNOW NOTHING ABOUT N.W.A.!!) early demise all the more devastating.
Jackson Jr., Ice Cube’s real life son, dispels any talk of nepotism, handing in a performance that captures the familiar mannerisms and essence of his father.
Also strong are Hawkins as the budding megaproducer Dre and Keith Stanfield as the young Snoop Dogg.
On the downside the movie doesn’t have much use for its female characters unless they are playing stern mothers, compliant groupies or supportive wives. We may have to wait for the Salt-N-Pepa biography for a look at the female side of hip hop.
At two-and-a-half hours “Straight Outta Compton” is a detailed look at the band that, although it takes liberties with the facts in favour of drama, grabs the rhythm of the time by the throat and doesn’t let go. Echoes of the Rodney King trial reverberate throughout the film giving the movie, in light of Black Lives Matter, a timely feel that showcases the prescient nature of Ice Cube’s rhymes.