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straight outta comptonNWA biopic Straight Outta Compton heralds a new era in hip hop’s near 35-year relationship with the movies, a period that can be broken down into several distinct parts. The 1980s for example saw the transition from docudramas like Wild Style, Breakin’ and Beat Street to comedy star vehicles for the likes of The Fat Boys and Kid n’ Play. The 1990s saw a proliferation of crime and hood dramas – from Mario Van Peebles’ New Jack City to John Singleton’s Boyz N The Hood – before a slew of comic films (Don’t Be A Menace To South Central While Drinking Your Juice In The Hood, the NWA mockumentary CB4) began to lampoon the posturing and career choices of gangsta rappers. A decade later 8 Mile and Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ were the highest profile releases, both of which were vehicles for Eminem and 50 Cent that used fictional characters based almost entirely on the earlier lives and careers of their stars (with very different results: 8 Mile remains one of the best hip hop movies to date, while Get Rich is unequivocally one of the worst).

Now, however, hip hop finally has a successful, straight-up music biopic (and the most financially-rewarding one of all time, to boot, delighting cultural commentators by knocking Walk The Line off its perch). It’s long overdue, and the strong box office showing of F. Gary Gray’s film will presumably pave the way for more of the same; at the very least a decent dramatic film needs to be made about the birth of hip hop or, perhaps more specifically, the careers of Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa, while the brief incursion into the world of Death Row Records in Straight Outta Compton suggests a drama about Suge Knight’s label will surely arrive one day (when someone is brave enough to write it). Whatever happens in the future there’s a sense now that the hip hop-related movie has finally come of age, and it’s probably safe to say now that we are in mid-September that this film has been the surprise hit of the summer.

Whether it’s actually that good or not is a moot point, and one that seems to have divided critics. In telling the story of NWA – the culturally significant, commercially successful and controversial Compton-based group featuring Dr Dre, DJ Yella, MC Ren, Eazy-E, The D.O.C. and Ice Cube – Gray’s entertaining film follows many of the usual musical biopic conventions, dutifully detailing the rise, the fall, the highs, the lows, the breakdown of relationships, the reconciliations, the slick record company money men who don’t ‘get’ the artists and the teary moments (the premature death of Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) at the age of 31 in 1995 gradually dominates the final act, though there’s a business-related epilogue tacked on as Dr Dre (Corey Hawkins) leaves Death Row to start his own label, Aftermath). Yet despite the familiarity of much of this material we haven’t really seen it applied to African-American artists from the past 30 or 40 years before, and certainly not to a hip hop group with this kind of history and background. Although they’re not filmed in an original way or outstanding fashion the scenes in recording studios and the re-staged live footage crackle with an energy that has been missing from all of the recent rock or jazz biopics that I’ve seen, give or take one or two sporadic scenes.

Straight Outta Compton packs plenty of punches into its long, 135-minute running time, most notably detailing the abuse the group’s members suffered at the hands of the police in the late ’80s and early ’90s (parallels with the Rodney King beating are drawn, and footage of the subsequent LA riots of 1992 is included). That said, the director and writers (Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff) have given the other outbreaks of violence that dogged NWA’s career an overly glossy sheen, or in some cases completely omitted them: there’s a frisson of excitement to be had watching tough, aggressive men repeatedly go head-to-head with other tough, aggressive men in hotel corridors, recording studios, meeting rooms, restaurants and so on, but in order to sweeten the story for mainstream cinema audiences the more controversial misogyny of Dr. Dre’s early life has been omitted (as widely reported, though it’s no surprise really, given that he’s one of the film’s producers).

As long as interested parties are still alive I dare say a great deal more unpalatable material has been left out too, but that can be applied to countless musical biopics, most of which are made with the intention of cementing a legend rather than deconstructing a myth. While the misogyny is the most obvious and serious omission, it’s also worth noting that the film trivialises the contributions of DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), keeping both firmly in the background while Dre, Eazy-E and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr, the rapper’s real life son) are placed front and centre; MC Ren took to social media to vent his anger at the slight, claiming that true fans were aware of the extent of his lyrical contribution, though he fares better than Arabian Prince, a founder member of the group who is all but written out of history by the screenplay.

At times the film sags a little, dutifully running through the money-related fallouts, group implosion and subsequent public disses that occurred in the wake of worldwide fame and notoriety, but for the most part it hold your attention and it’s difficult to think of a music biopic of recent years that has anything near the same level of vibrancy (I haven’t seen Get On Up, which many people claim is similarly energetic). The acting is generally solid, with Hawkins, Mitchell and Jackson, Jr shouldering the weight of the drama well enough, while R. Marcos Taylor steals all of his scenes as the imposing and ruthless Knight. Sadly there are no prominent female roles in what turns, as expected, into a very macho film; as for the rest of the cast, various other prominent musicians of the era – Chuck D, Warren G, Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur – are briefly and incongruously shoehorned into the story (there are way too many scenes here in which people are introduced to one another for the first time before being promptly forgotten about), and Paul Giamatti delivers a so-so turn as manager Jerry Heller.

Directed by: F. Gary Gray.
Written by: Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff.
Starring: Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, O’Shea Jackson, Jr, Paul Giamatti, Aldis Hodge, Neil Brown, Jr.
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique.
Editing: Billy Fox.
Music: Joseph Trapanese, NWA, Various.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 146 minutes.
Year: 2015.

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By concentrating on and linking together two different but key periods of Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s life, Bill Pohlad’s Love And Mercy sheds light on his creative talent while largely sidestepping the usual music biopic formula that sees stories moving conveniently through three distinct passages: the humble beginnings and the rise to fame, the subsequent travails (artistic, personal, artistic and personal) and finally death or some kind of redemption, depending on the star in question (that’s all present here but the focus is firmly on the management of mental health issues). We have Paul Dano playing Wilson at 23, already a successful artist but one who stops touring with his band in order to concentrate on the recording of Pet Sounds, The Beach Boys’ symphonic, experimental response to Rubber Soul by The Beatles; and we also see John Cusack as the damaged, fragile Wilson of the late 1980s, a man struggling to cope with the radical therapy and controlling behaviour of Dr Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) but simultaneously falling in love with second wife Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks).

Pohlad deals with the rise of The Beach Boys swiftly, an opening montage detailing their popularity as America (and then the rest of the world) briefly goes ga-ga for their catchy tales of California sunshine, girls, cars and surfing. It’s a smart decision, in that it indicates to the viewer at an early stage that they will not simply be watching another music biopic, and it’s also executed with aplomb: Dano and the rest of the relevant actors re-create familiar promo shots, concerts and the like, while the manipulated footage looks suitably authentic.

A panic attack on a plane is given as the catalyst for Brian’s decision to stop touring with the band, leaving brothers Carl (Brett Davern) and Dennis (Kenny Wormald) as well as cousin Mike Love (Jake Abel) and friend Al Jardine (Graham Rogers) to enjoy life on the road while Brian sets about making the record that critics regularly suggest is one of the best albums of all time. Subsequent scenes will be enjoyed by Beach Boys fans in particular: the introduction of Wrecking Crew musicians such as Hal Blaine (Johnny Sneed) and Carol Kaye (Teresa Cowles) will give nerds a frisson of excitement, despite it being one of Love And Mercy‘s clunkier passages, and seeing Wilson excitedly tap out the intro to I’m Waiting For The Day on a passing drum is indicative of the many nice touches as the band sets about recording their constituent parts. This attention to musical detail continues later, but is linked more to the star’s increasing mental health issues: Wilson placing a piano in a sandpit and forcing session musicians to wear fireman hats is now the stuff of rock legend, and those stories are usually told to amuse, to sum-up mid-’60s LSD-influenced experimentation and to reinforce the belief that a fine line exists between genius and madness, but here Pohlad is keen to show that it’s not just some wacky drugs anecdote and is in fact indicative of something far more serious. (Interestingly the same events were covered sympathetically in Allison Anders’ underrated Grace Of My Heart, in which Matt Dillon played a character that is Wilson in all but name.)

We cut back and forth between the Pet Sounds period (as well as the recording of abandoned follow-up Smile) and the scenes with Cusack’s Wilson, who meets Ledbetter when she tries to sell him a new car. Where the swing of the ’60s in this film is defined by the presence of many principal characters and extras (extravagant recording sessions, pool parties, band meetings and so on) the ’80s is a marked contrast: a handful of actors are used, California appears paler, quieter, and the musician is sad, withdrawn and child-like, as indicated by his desire at one point to ‘make out like teenagers’. Pohlad’s transitions between the two decades are smooth, partly thanks to the performances of Dano and Cusack (the latter being able to watch and reference the performance of the former), partly through the connective symbolic use of water, but also notably in the appearance of dual unsympathetic father figures: the domestic violence perpetrated by father and bitter former manager Murry Wilson (Bill Camp) is highlighted, as is an unpleasant streak of jealousy, while in the later period Landy takes his place, keeping watch on his cash cow at all times and even employing a chaperone / bodyguard as Wilson and Ledbetter go on their early dates. Those familiar with real life events will know all about the svengali, from his large salary and his mis-diagnosis of Wilson’s condition to his rather unpleasant attempts to take control of the star’s musical career and legacy — my CD liner notes for Pet Sounds even refer to Landy as an ‘executive consultant’, despite the fact he began working with Wilson in 1975, ten years after the album was made. The screenplay points out that the Landy years tellingly began after the singer went through a period of reclusivity in the wake of Murry’s death.

While it’s perfectly understandable that Giamatti is required to make an impact and to portray the psychotherapist as devious and occasionally monstrous, it must be said that his performance seems more in keeping with a cheap TV movie than this particular film; in fact one scene, in which an unseen, eavesdropping Landy suddenly reveals his presence in a studio recording booth was greeted by loud guffaws in my cinema – not the intended effect – as presumably it reminded many viewers of this kind of thing. The usual response is to round on the actor in such cases, but it’s hard to tell whether Giamatti is at fault, whether it is Pohlad’s direction, or whether it’s a combination of both. Whatever the reason it left me considering this to be a good ensemble performance, as opposed to one of the year’s best to date.

And so … the leads: the ever-likable Cusack hasn’t been this good for years, while it’s pleasing to see Dano continue his excellent run of form. The point has already been made many times over, but it’s worth repeating that while Dano clearly looks like the real 1960s singer, Cusack bares little resemblance to either his co-star or the middle-aged Wilson (except for the shape of their respective mouths). Thankfully even the fact that the two leads have different-coloured eyes doesn’t preclude the viewer from accepting that it’s the same man, while interestingly Oren Moverman’s presence as co-screenwriter (he worked on Michael Alan Lerner’s original script) brings to mind his earlier involvement with I’m Not There, the magnificent Todd Haynes’ film in which several different actors played Bob Dylan.

The surprise is, arguably, Elizabeth Banks; Melinda is sympathetic and kind, while her lack of comfort as she suddenly has to negotiate this odd world of cranks and superstars is telegraphed well, but she is more than a simple saviour and Banks reveals the character’s strength, resilience and defiance with a welcome subtlety, especially as she shares a number of her scenes with Giamatti. It’s too early to get into all this nonsense once again but it’s no surprise that there’s talk of an Academy Award nomination for her work here. We’ll see.

The support is very much ‘the support’. To wit Dennis and Carl Wilson, two complex figures in real life,  only really feature as sounding boards for their brother, while Erin Darke’s part as Marilyn, Brian’s first wife, is sadly underwritten. Max Schneider makes a very brief impression as songwriter Van Dyke Parks (mainly because he gets to stomp off during a band meeting) but only Abel’s Mike Love manages to step successfully from the background into the foreground, primarily due to his entertaining clashes with Wilson over the band’s direction. Love famously wanted to ditch the experimentation and return to the formulaic pop that made The Beach Boys stars; he repeatedly questions the methods of Dano’s Brian here, and after Pet Sounds is released his anger regarding it’s disappointing chart position is somewhat amusing, given the benefit of hindsight.

Finally the sound design must be singled out for praise, especially for the way in which Atticus Ross’s soundtrack dovetails with the foley work to establish the oppressive nature of the cacophonies Brian hears (these auditory hallucinations are believed to be linked to his father’s beatings, but were almost certainly exacerbated by Wilson’s use of LSD). One scene in particular stands out, in which the cumulative effect of cutlery noise during a dinner party causes Wilson to scream in agony moments before the audience does the same. It’s both fitting and telling that great attention is paid to the sound in Love And Mercy, as it’s wholly in keeping with Brian Wilson’s own ability to make sense of the sounds he imagined and indicative more generally that Pohlad, his writers and his crew have thought long and hard about the man at the heart of the story. This is a very good biopic, which makes Giamatti’s performance an even greater shame.

Directed by: Bill Pohlad.
Written by: Michael Alan Lerner, Oren Moverman. Based on Heroes And Villains by Michael Alan Lerner.
Starring: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Jake Abel, Bill Camp, Brett Davern, Kenny Wormald.
Cinematography: Robert Yeoman.
Editing: Dino Jonsäter.
Music: Atticus Ross, The Beach Boys.
Certificate: 12A.
Running Time: 120 minutes.
Year: 2015.

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Given the praise that has been heaped upon Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave to date, my expectations on entering the cinema were sky high. Based on the memoirs of Solomon Northup, the compliments have been flowing ever since its US release a couple of months ago, and many have suggested this film is not only one of the finest pictures of the past year, but also one of the finest of all time: a masterpiece, no less, of modern cinema. While I think it is a very well-constructed film – and an excellent addition to McQueen’s impressive CV to date – it also has its faults, and some of these seem to have been glossed over in the initial clamour to laud it in the lead-up to the awards season.

Let me reiterate: this is a very good film, despite the fact it seems to be on the end of a slight critical backlash while being rolled out to countries around the world at the time of writing. I can certainly understand why it has been nominated for a Best Picture Shiny Gong (though personally I don’t think it should win, and that’s even before I have seen all of the nominated films). I can also understand why three of its actors – Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o – have received nominations, and why its director has also received a nod (the Academy’s bizarre collective decision to ignore Fassbender and McQueen’s previous collaboration, Shame, still mystifies). But I think it falls short of being a masterpiece.

Ejiofor stars as Northup, a free black man who lives with his family in New York state. A skilled carpenter and musician, Northup is drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Given a false identity by his captors, he is then sold by trader Theophilus Freeman (a depressingly exuberant Paul Giamatti) to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a plantation owner based in northern Louisiana. Though it is a complete oxymoron, Ford is a more benevolent slave master than most, but Northup experiences trouble elsewhere on the plantation, clashing with a racist white carpenter named John Tibeats (Paul Dano).

Tibeats eventually tries to lynch Northup following a dispute, so in order to protect the slave Ford quickly sells him to a neighbouring plantation owner, Edwin Epps (Fassbender). However Epps is a vicious sadist, who lusts after another slave, Patsey (Nyong’o) right under the watchful eye of his equally mean wife Mary (Sarah Paulson), and Northup’s hopes of freedom appear to dwindle with the passing years.

First of all, it’s disappointing that the subject of slavery has been off the Hollywood agenda for so long, although with 12 Years A Slave proving to be a moneyspinner and Django Unchained being Tarantino’s most profitable movie yet, a cynic might suggest we will be seeing more films about this period in American history in the near future, and not because of the critical acclaim those two movies and Lincoln have received. Hollywood will only tackle such issues if it is profitable to do so. While Steven Spielberg and Lars Von Trier have made films in the past 15 years that attempt to address the issue of slavery, the sudden trickle of films during the past 18 months that cover this subject damningly highlights the fact that the topic has been avoided by mainstream Hollywood since 1997’s Amistad, a movie which tellingly only just clawed back its $35 million budget.

McQueen’s powerful film, with a screenplay by John Ridley adapted from Northup’s memoirs, examines the brutality suffered by slaves in the deep south at the hands of their owners. The camera is unflinching, lingering on the scenes of violence and the aftermath of scarred and cut flesh, controlling its viewers and forcing one and all to contemplate the brutality of plantation life and the sickening cruelty endured by the unjustly imprisoned. In Shame, one of the most memorable scenes saw McQueen focus tightly on Fassbender’s face as his sex-addict character Brandon experienced an orgasm. This tremendous and uncomfortable scene seemed to go on forever, with the director refusing to cut away from the actor, who appeared to be experiencing both ecstasy and utter despair at the same time. McQueen uses this technique again in 12 Years A Slave: the camera is locked on Northup for an age as he hangs from a tree, his feet only just touching the muddy ground, but it is almost nonchalantly distant. As children begin to play in the background, it becomes clear just how commonplace such acts of senseless and vicious hatred must have been. This is a powerful and harrowing cinematic moment.

There is plenty of shocking brutality in the film, including rape and torture, but oddly I was just as shocked by the reaction by other characters to the events that take place in full sight of the plantation workers. When Mary Epps smashes a decanter into the side of Patsey’s face it is a shocking moment, instantly stopping a forced dance that is taking place for Edwin’s amusement. However once words are exchanged, Patsey’s body is merely dragged off towards a door as Epps orders the slaves to carry on where they left off, as though nothing had happened.

Later on, when Edwin (egged on by the jealous Mary) forces Solomon to whip Patsey as punishment for an extremely minor indiscretion involving a bar of soap, normal service quickly resumes on the plantation after the beating. It makes for depressing viewing, as well it should, but a question mark hangs over the director’s choice of strings as an accompaniment to these unnerving scenes.

McQueen chooses to juxtapose the violence of the plantation with the beauty of the natural environment. Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography regularly takes in parting leaves and swaying trees, and the ominous scenes that show choppy water as the paddle steamer carrying new slaves moves south are magnificent and subtle. (The choppy water is an indicator for the violence to come, resembling the lacerations on the backs of several characters.)

Less subtle is a clunky pan from the Washington, DC jail in which Northup is initially tortured upwards across the rooftops to the US Capitol building, which looms in the distance. This is a rare mis-step, and is also one of the film’s few overt nods to the wider socio-political history of the slave trade, which surprised me given many critics had been talking about 12 Years A Slave as if it were a definitive statement on slavery. It isn’t: it is a dramatisation of one man’s account. It may be a good one, but it is nothing more than that. (Some have already questioned the validity of the overly dramatic scenes, such as the one taking place on the boat, in which a slave played by Michael K. Williams is stabbed to death by a seaman before being unceremoniously dumped into the water. Naturally there’s no account of this in Northup’s memoirs, as he and his fellow slaves were worth a lot of money, and the crew would not have jeopardized them in such a way.)

We are tantalizingly given just a couple of minutes of another ex-slave’s story when the action briefly switches to the nearby farm of Mr Shaw, whose mistress Harriet (Alfre Woodard) is black, but this is dropped before many details can be absorbed into the story. We are not party to conversations between Edwin and Mary, or between any other characters, unless Solomon is present. As a result every single supporting character is cast aside abruptly in the film at the point Northup exits their lives; the failure to revisit any of them at a later point is disappointing, though perfectly understandable.

While Northup’s story is a fascinating one, it’s infuriating that a happy ending still feels like a pre-requisite, presumably agreed well before the film’s budget was approved. It’s the spoonful of sugar to help the foul-tasting medicine go down. While accounts from American slaves containing such rich detail are rare, it seems predictable that one was chosen containing a relatively-positive ending. Perhaps a film about a man or woman dying while still enslaved would be even more hard-hitting, but would the same amount of people pay to watch it?

Ejiofor is excellent as the wronged man forced to endure over a decade in captivity, magnificently portraying Solomon’s quiet dignity, stoicism and inner strength in the face of abuse witnessed and suffered. When Northup’s face begins to crack amidst a group singing ‘Roll, Jordan Roll’ at a funeral the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, yet this is just one of many emotional scenes that the actor handles with considerable skill.

The quality of his performance is matched by both Fassbender and Nyong’o. Fassbender is superb as the monstrous plantation owner Epps, his appearance in the film incredibly taking the previous level of menace to a new height, despite the fact we only see him resorting to physical violence and abusive acts on a couple of occasions. As he singles Patsey out for praise for her cotton picking, or justifies his actions and status with religious fervour, the skin crawls. Nyong’o also excels as the female slave enduring abuse from both Edwin and Mary, at one point pleading with Solomon to kill her; it is a tremendous breakthrough performance, sincere and heartbreakingly sad.

The rest of the cast are mostly good. Dano, Cumberbatch and Giamatti all do well but have little time on screen to impact upon the movie in the same way as the three leads; I’d have happily seen more of all three characters. I very much enjoyed Sarah Paulson’s narrow-eyed Mary too; she is overshadowed somewhat by Fassbender, but is just as cruel and vindictive. Unfortunately Brad Pitt’s limited scenes near the end of the film jar with the preceding material. It’s not that his acting is bad, it’s just that he stands out as a real Hollywood icon: a movie star in a film of actors. While Cumberbatch, Dano and Giamatti all have distinctive physical appearances that make them instantly recognisable in any film, none of those three come with the same level of tabloid-y baggage as Pitt, who just serves to remind you that this is A Big Hollywood Film. And that’s unfortunate.

McQueen has put together a harrowing and unforgettable film with a strong cast. It is poetic, moving and at times beautifully shot, but all of that pales into insignificance when considering the overall necessity, vitality and importance of the film. It is a landmark picture because it tackles the issue of slavery head on, and focuses primarily on a man who was actually enslaved, rather than a cartoonish cowboy version of one or a politician that helped end the movement (despite Lincoln’s importance regarding the history of the slave trade in the US). But it also feels like concessions have been made in order to justify the movie’s budget and to ensure that enough people are attracted to their local cinema in order to watch it. The presence of Brad Pitt and the heart-tugging score composed by Hans Zimmer do not ruin the finished article, of course, but they are reminders that even stories like this must adhere to a certain framework, or follow certain crowd-pleasing rules. It might seem churlish to suggest that an uncompromising, challenging film could be even more uncompromising and challenging, but that’s how I felt as the house lights came on. It’s an important film, and it is well made, but I’m not convinced that it’s a masterpiece.

The Basics:

Directed by: Steve McQueen
Written by: John Ridley, Solomon Northup
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 133 minutes
Year: 2013
Rating: 8.9

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