Director: Don Cheadle
Writers: Steven Baigelman, Don Cheadle
Stars: Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi, LaKeith Lee Stanfield
Release date: April 1st, 2016
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Running time: 100 minutes
Release date: September 30th, 2015
Distributor: TriStar Pictures
Running time: 123 minutes
Release date: September 3rd, 2015
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Running time: 147 minutes
Compton, California-born hip-hop ensemble NWA created gangsta rap from scratch. The West Coast group – forged by Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Ezy-E, DJ Yella, and MC Ren – spoke the unspoken truth about America’s brash, brazen authority figures. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, the LAPD and FBI had a strong, adversarial force on their doorstep. However, behind the scenes, the era-defining group ultimately took themselves down. This fascinating true story is the backbone of Straight Outta Compton, a musical biopic more invigorating than most.
Ice Cube and Dr. Dre are currently two of pop-culture’s hardest-working artists. They, taking on producing duties here, are in control over Straight Outta Compton’s accuracy. Controversy has since overshadowed the production, with black marks including Dre’s assault convictions pushed aside. The biopic chronicles the rise and fall strand of the journey. Cube (O’Shea Jackson jr.), Dre (Corey Hawkins), and E (Jason Mitchell) form NWA under label Ruthless Records. Supported by shady music manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), debut album Straight Outta Compton takes every corner of America by storm. Inciting violence with ‘F*ck tha Police’, cracks quickly form within the group.
For better or worse, Cube and Dre’s involvement makes Straight Outta Compton one of 2015’s edgiest and most compelling dramas. Director F. Gary Gray (Friday, The Italian Job) is, to a certain extent, given free rein with this fascinating material. Sticking to a dark, uncompromising tone, Gray handles Compton’s gang/drug culture, racial injustice, and the group’s beginnings efficiently. The first half’s breakneck pace elevates it above most musical biopics. Gracefully, the first half focuses intently on the group dynamic and swift ascension into Platinum prowess. Driven by sex, money, and drugs, many sequences effectively balance drama and humour.
Unfortunately, the second half adheres to several tired, out-dated biopic clichés. Typically, the ‘fall’ stage feels like a monotonous slog towards the dénouement. Despite the tension and thrills, its unnecessary 147-minute run-time pads out this otherwise compelling story. Despite the length, the narrative jumps erratically between its lead three characters. Grappling with their extended war of words, betrayal, and multiple supporting characters, the movie’s building sub-plots – including run-ins with vile producer Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) and Snoop Dogg (Keith Stanfield) – overshadow the thematic resonance and lighter, character-driven moments. Despite the flaws, its tragic finale highlights NWA overwhelming, multi-generational effect.
Cube and Dre allow Gray’s production to express the darker shades of their remarkable story. Cube, shown doing everything from trashing Priority Records with a baseball bat to raising a family, makes for a charismatic force of personality and ambition. Played by his real-life son, the film version is depicted with true colours. Ezy is the film’s heart and soul. Driven by the public spotlight, Ezy stands out beyond his ultra-famous band mates. Mitchell is the breakout star, playing the larger-than-life figure with restraint and dignity. However, Dre, though played effectively by Hawkins, is treated as a shining light. Despite the illegitimate children and arrests, the movie version is shown as pioneering more so than flawed or broken.
Becoming a smash commercial hit over the past month, the movie vigorously discusses ongoing tensions between the police and African-American communities. Like 2014 docudrama Selma, Straight Outa Compton captures a rich, in-depth look at local communities affected by the misuse of police power. Discussing the zeitgeist, this biopic isn’t afraid to showcase the dangers of NWA’s touring experience. Facing police threats, protests and government injunctions, the group’s socio-political edge resonates today. Referencing the Rodney King beatings, several sequences capture the severity of police brutality in and around the titular LA suburb. One scene, showcasing police interference outside Heller’s studio, illuminates the group’s historical importance.
Despite appealing to typical musical-biopic tropes, Straight Outta Compton flows with the tone and rhythm of the titular song. Cube and Dre, though overcooking the production, let Gray tell a dark, uncompromising version of unbelievable events.
Release date: December 26th, 2014
Distributor: Entertainment One
Country: UK, France, Germany
Running Date: 150 minutes
Release date: August 1st, 2014
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Running time: 138 minutes
Musical biopics commercial hits share one particular similarity – they gain significant traction by following a specific formula. Despite the quality of certain examples, these docudramas skate by on the success of the people/groups etc involved. Get On Up examines one musician, and the blues-soul hits he carved from nothing. Despite clinging onto several alluring conceits, this musical biopic is nowhere near as energetic as its title suggests.
Obviously, James Brown aka the Godfather of Soul is an inspirational person worthy of significant cinematic treatment. Breaking down racial and artistic barriers, Brown was a caricature and musician willing to transform his world. His songs, hitting hearts and minds from the 1960s onward, work their way into the consciousness like no one else’s. In addition, his work paved the way for everyone from Stevie Wonder to Pharrell Williams. So, does Get On Up do him justice? Short answer: Yes and no. Yes, on a performance level. No, because of the rift between its director and writers. For those unaware of Brown’s story, the movie chronicles the best and worst parts of his existence. The movie’s first scene comes off like a belligerent, Eddie Murphy-driven Saturday Night Live Sketch. Kicking off in 1988, we meet a worn-out Brown (Chadwick Boseman) in the midst of a concerning drug problem. After finding out someone had used his bathroom without his consent, Brown threatens the attendees of an insurance seminar with a shotgun. Looking past is peculiar event, the movie then tracks back through his better moments. With Vietnam in full swing, late 60s America turned to musicians like Brown to distract itself from problems abroad. Beyond this, the movie extensively applauds his fascinating success story.
Abandoned by his parents, Joe (Lennie James) and Susie (Viola Davis), Brown shifts from working for brothel owner Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer) to jail time to singing gospel alongside Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis). Tracking Brown from his troubled youth to his notorious 90s comeback, Get On Up painstakingly throws everything regarding his existence onto the big screen. In fact, director Tate Taylor (The Help) appears to be making a habit of wholeheartedly tackling African-American history’s most involving stories. From the opening hostage sequence onward, Taylor latest docudrama seeks to deliver a ‘greatest hits’ version of Brown’s invigorating legacy. Refreshingly, his style crafts several Oscar-worthy moments. In certain sections, Taylor examines everything from Brown’s extraordinary personality to his significant achievements to his deplorable brushes with temptation. This biopic’s shiny veneer is a testament to Taylor’s own guile and heartiness. Refusing to make big-budget dross, Taylor is a game-changer himself. Unfortunately, the material he’s working with fails to honour Brown’s unforgettable aura. As Jez and John-Henry Butterworth’s second major screenplay for 2014, following up enjoyable action-thriller Edge of Tomorrow, their work copies and pastes entire sequences from similar musical biopics. Following a tried-and-true formula, their writing lacks Walk the Line and Ray‘s bright spark. Tackling Dreamgirls‘ structure, this rise-and-fall formula deserves a significant shake up.
“If it sound good, and it feel good, then it’s musical.” (James Brown (Chadwick Boseman), Get On Up).
In trying to reinvigorate this genre, Taylor and co. shuffle things around to fit a non-linear format. Delivering a convoluted narrative, this note-worthy biopic lacks its competitors’ coherency and depth. By switching up certain story and character beats, Taylor reduces its overall message to fit the Brown family’s wishes. Depicting a conservative analysis of Brown’s life choices, The movie, for the most part, leaves his problems with domestic violence and drug abuse on the cutting room floor. In addition, the race-relations angle is, bafflingly, picked up and dropped without warning. Addressed in small doses, the movie’s agenda restricts itself to, every so often, having minor white characters say the N-word. However, beyond the prickly race issues and stirring conflicts, the movie hinges on its performers successfully enveloping these parts. Fortunately, Taylor’s specialty resides in pulling brilliant turns out of stellar ensembles. Boseman, kicking off his career with last year’s Jackie Robinson biopic 42, is revelatory as music history’s biggest ego. Capturing Brown’s signature voice and mannerisms, his scintillating turn is worth the admission cost. In fact, his dance moves elevate the movie’s catchy renditions of ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’, and ‘Please, Please, Please’.
Handling Brown’s reputation with care, Taylor and Boseman succeed in delivering a meaningful and efficient biopic. Fortunately, as the narrative rises and falls, Get On up delivers several applause-worthy moments. However, despite the lead’s inherent charisma, the movie around him hits some unbearable screeches. Boosting this docudrama above the pack, Boseman – like Brown – is a true game-changer.
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