I love music, I enjoy cinema, so a film about music has got to be a sure fire winner with me… not necessarily. But here’s thoughts on two deeply contrasting films about music that you can currently pick up on DVD – Straight Outta Compton and Amy.
Straight Outta Compton is the Hollywood blockbuster “based on reality” story of the rise of N.W.A. and the parallel emergence of Gangster Rap as a music form in its own right. Endorsed by some of the survivors of that tale (in particular Dre and Ice Cube) it follows the intertwining stories of Dr Dre, Ice Cube and Easy E through their joining together, emergence into fame and ultimate split (including the role played by their manager – Jerry Heller).
Amy is a documentary, stringing together footage from concert/live appearances and home videos intertwined with comment by those who knew her. The survivors tell the story from their various, and often conflicting, standpoints.
So which, if either, is the better film.
Let me talk about two different angles:
This is a very honourable scoring draw. Both were capable of exhilarating performances and both were at the forefront of their particular craft. Both films do annoy in cutting down songs in the interest of moving the story along, but the real goose-bump moments in each are when the music is at the forefront.
In Amy it is the recording of Back to Black, where her voice alone as she sings is interspersed with moments where the full backing track fades in and out. It shows the purity of her voice as an instrument and the exquisite feel she has for the music that accompanies it. Her performance at the Mercury awards are also stunning. Sadly there is nothing from her Other Voices performance in Dingle – a glaring omission
In SOC, it is the live sequences that deliver the energy and momentum and power to the drama. Perhaps more surprisingly, the recording sessions add both light (genuine comic moments) and shade (threatening undertones) at different times.
If you a fan, then these will satisfy. If you don’t know, then these are a great introduction.
Music fans should see both films
The (True) Story
Both films offer up what we are to believe is a true story. Here they are on much more shaky ground.
SOC comes out of Hollywood for mainstream audiences. The inevitable result is that three things happen…
- The story is incomplete: one member of the original NWA is barely even featured, others are placed squarely in the background as the main characters of Cube, Dre and Easy E play out their stories.
- The story is sanitised: OK, so it is nowhere near “the Brady Bunch”, but the shocks are Hollywood shocks, rather than real life. We chuckle as our heroes send some luckless nobodies packing (looking for a girlfriend) from their hotel suite with the aid of submachine gun. The scene is shot as an action picture rather than a brutal drink inspired act of violence. The real nastiness comes from a fringe character (Suge). His pistol whipping of an innocent bystander is the most chilling event of the film
- The story is made pantomime: Jerry Heller is the villain; Dre is a hero. As a result we downplay the contribution to success that came from Heller and focus on contractual manoeuvres that led to the band’s split and E’s financial downfall. It is a testimony to the excellence of Paul Giametti that he instils humanity and sympathy to the character. Contrast this with Dre, characterised as a soulful and humane character amidst all the mayhem. What we don’t see an exploration of his well-documented drunken rages and violence towards woman
So, it doesn’t fit in with the Hollywood formula, so the truth is made licence with in SOC. Surely we are on safer ground with Amy.
Well, maybe…. But maybe not.
The overall story is that of a tortured soul in a cycle of self-destruction, possibly aided, certainly not hindered, by some of those close by. It is difficult viewing because it is so unremittingly “on message”. As the story progresses the sadness and the grey become ever present and tough to handle. Gone is the cheeky girl and the gang having a laugh of the early years.
There is a truth to this, of course. The remorseless attack on privacy at a time when paparazzi intrusion was at its sickest heights is quite horrific. The drink and drug fuelled escape from real life was there for all to see at the time and no punches are pulled here.
I get a sense, though, of a one sided narrative. For me the most engaging moment in the second half of the film is when Amy is recording a duet with Tony Bennett. Here we see full realised the lover of jazz and a young lady desperate to live up to the high standards needed to share the stage with her idol. It feels like an honest and balanced window is opened into Amy for this one moment.
So what am I saying here? Take either of these for their music and you will love what you get. Look for a balanced reflection of reality at your peril. Remember always that the film maker chooses what to show and what not to show – they provide the narrative. That narrative is a version of the truth, but it will not be complete and rounded.
In the end I’m a bit of a shallow bastard, so I may watch Amy again… but when the maltesers are in the bowl and the ice cold beer is in the glass I’ll throw on Straight Outta Compton and enjoy the entertainment.