Musical biopics are a dime a dozen in Hollywood cinema, and most follow a very strict formula in order to display the lives of their chosen artists. We may start late in the career, before being treated to a retrospective of their career (‘Dewey Cox needs to think about his entire life before he plays.’) We usually see a rise, to fall, to rise again, charting the dangers that fame and fortune bring with it. Here, with Love & Mercy and Straight Outta Compton, we have two very unique stories, with one told in  much more unique fashion, focusing on the two separate yet both highly influential moments in popular music history.   

Love&Mercy

Love & Mercy (Dir: Bill Pohlad)

Love & Mercy charts the troubled genius of The BEach Boy’s Brian Wilson, here played by both Paul Dano (during the 1960s recording of ‘Pet Sounds’) and John Cusack (in the 1980s as he struggles with schizophrenia). This parallel narrative is what marks Love & Mercy as a unique take on the musical biopic. It is a film for those that hold great affection for The Beach Boys, yet also a story that concerns the responsibility of creation and the fragility of Wilson’s musical genius.

The narrative stream which follows Paul Dano as Wilson producing the now iconic Pet Sounds album is by far the stronger strand. Witnessing the creation of an album which is a personal favourite, and of course a significant piece of pop music history, allows the film to sizzle with a unique creative energy. It also benefits greatly from Dano’s chameleon-esque performance, as he very much embodies Wilson in an uncanny fashion and deftly protrays the paranoia that soon gripped him and his talent.

That is not to say that the narrative strand that follows Cusack as Wilson is not worthwhile, it is simply that Dano’s performance is the better of the two. Cusack has the task of portraying Wilson when his mental health was at its worse, as he was over-medicated by his so-called ‘Guardian’ Doctor Landy (a ferocious Paul Giamatti). He strikes a relationship with Elizabeth Banks’ car saleswoman, who seeks to release him from Landy’s manipulative clutches. It feels a tad more contrived than the moments in the 60s, but Cusack brings a nervous energy to his Wilson, very Love&Mercy-1much forging his own performance, with both himself and Dano constructing two very different, yet complementary, performances.

What is very clear throughout Love & Mercy is the passion from all involved, either for Wilson himself or the music. There is a passion for the process of the creation of Pet Sounds itself, a unique recording experiment, featuring arguably the best tracks The Beach Boys ever produced. There is also a great deal of care and sympathy for Brain Wilson, framing him as a very troubled genius, as self-destructive as he is productive. This passion for its subject elevates Love & Mercy from many of the pratfalls of the musical biopic, kept engaging but the form of the dual narrative. 4/5 

StraightOuttaComptonStraight Outta Compton (Dir: F. Gary Gray)

The story of rap group N.W.A. has particularly taken the States by storm, displaying a volatile history through its focus on the group that shot the group, comprised of Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jnr.), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jnr), to controversial stardom in the hey-day of hip hop. It is a flick which is more conventional in regards to its story-telling, sticking to conventional narrative structure, allowing events to unfold in chronological fashion as it details an undoubtedly interesting history of a group who became a passionate voice for many.

What Straight Outta Compton offers, though, is a very closed perspective of the events that saw N.W.A.  form and quickly disband as the individual members pursued their own respective careers. This is a film in which Dr. Dre and Ice Cube serve as producers, so there is no chance of any of these individuals coming off in a particularly bad light, and for that fact, the film feels somewhat lacking in anything all that genuine. F. Gary Gray directs with a perfectly controlled style, but does not feel an impartial enough voice to depict these events which does little to offer much in the way of complex portrayals of its hip=hop stars.

What makes Straight Outta Compton an entertaining watch is the clear passion for the music and the largely convincing cast. The film comes to life when Gray brings the recording sessions and the concerts to life in slick and stylish fashion. There is a ferocity to the music of N.W.A. which has made it so iconic, venting the frustrations of the racial profiling an marginalising that police officers enforced on these young men and their peers in Compton, and that power can still be felt in the songs today. It is in these scenes that the film really comes to life and rips along at an entertaining clip.

Performance wise, the stand out is Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E, the ill-fated member of the group who died of HIV at a SOuttaC-1very young age. Mitchell is particularly affecting in his later scenes as Eazy is forced to deal with his demise very quickly, but it is to his credit that he constructs the most believable portrayal from being the only cast member unable to discuss the role with their real-life counterpart.

Tonally, Straight Outta Compton is a litter uneven, with Gray directing certain scenes like a straight action movie, scoring the film as such, and it is probably one of the more misogynistic offerings that this summer had to offer. There are scenes which fall flat, entirely due to the lack of genuine nature to them; some of it is simply hard to believe it happened,if due to the treatment of characters or the over-stylised approach. It’s entertaining enough, and holds your attention for most of its never testing 140 minutes plus runtime, it is just a shame that a more impartial approach wasn’t applied to this account of a undoubtedly iconic moment in late 20th Century music history. 3/5 

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