The irresistible rise of gangsta rap.
Sep 14, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 01 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Just as Philip Larkin sighed that the sexual revolution “came too late for me,” I had already aged out of rap as it emerged with enormous force in the 1980s. I was then in my twenties and, listening to it, I felt for the first time the same sort of generational disdain that adults of the 1950s had felt upon listening to rock ’n’ roll. It was a lot of noise, you couldn’t understand the words, and everybody who performed it was just too angry and hyper-sexualized.
This is all by way of saying that Straight Outta Compton, the enormously successful backstage melodrama about the rise of the “gangsta rap” group NWA, tells a story that has little resonance for me. I was aware of NWA—who wasn’t, after all, as its key song “F— tha Police” created a cultural uproar in 1988 that certainly set my law-and-order tongue to clucking at the time? But my actual problem with NWA and rap in general was never really ideological, although my tongue-clucking did seem to elevate my aural distaste from aesthetic disapproval to a self-congratulatory moral sneer that makes me cringe when I look back on it.
The honest truth was this: NWA’s stock in trade was in serving as a musical id, whereas I was one of those people who craved musical fare that would soothe my overactive superego. Even as an adolescent myself a decade earlier, I never found the emotional release so many others of my age did at the time in the angry white people’s music of the time: heavy metal and punk. Quite the opposite. I did not want my anger reflected in the music I listened to; I wanted to salve it with beauty, wit, sophistication. My teenage countercultural weirdness—and trust me, it was very weird, there was nothing remotely cool about the American Songbook at the time—was playing the grooves off Frank Sinatra’s Capitol albums of the 1950s.
What Straight Outta Compton reveals is that NWA had plenty in common with Sinatra, albeit backstage. The movie is both a hagiography of the men who led NWA—Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy-E—and a warts-and-all portrait of them. They’re shown as shy, sensitive, and well-meaning. But we also see them mistreating women, trashing hotel rooms, and partnering with psychotic crooks. In these respects, they were just following Sinatra’s lead.
He was the original gangsta. Sinatra sucker-punched people and was arrested for it, ate bacon and eggs off the prone bodies of women he had brought into his Palm Springs lair, and hung around with Mafiosi from his earliest days in Hoboken.
In his autobiography, Jerry Lewis (himself a man entangled with the Mob) insists that the anecdote in The Godfather about how Mario Puzo’s thinly veiled Sinatra character got out of his band contract with Tommy Dorsey because a Mafia don made Dorsey “a deal he couldn’t refuse” was an accurate representation of reality. He also says that Sinatra served as a bagman for Lucky Luciano. Straight Outta Compton’s depiction of Dr. Dre’s relationship with the horrifyingly violent (and oft-imprisoned) impresario Suge Knight suggests that, in show business, the sins of the Godfather are passed on to the children unto the fourth generation.
The difference, of course, was that Sinatra sought to make beauty, while NWA sought to embody, personify, and reflect the rage of its audience. And here, I guess, one has to suspend a certain kind of judgment and pay obeisance to the market. Sinatra was a voice of his time, and NWA was a voice of its time. And both have stood the test of time—so far.
The success of Straight Outta Compton raises the surviving members of NWA (the depiction of Eazy-E’s death from AIDS in 1995 brings the movie to a close) to the level of cultural elder statesmen. It’s been 27 years since NWA released the album that gives Straight Outta Compton its name. Ice Cube, who shouted “F— tha Police,” will soon appear in the sequel to his hit 2014 movie Ride Along—in which he plays a hard-bitten cop. (His son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., plays him in Straight Outta Compton.) Dr. Dre sold his headphones company to Apple last year in a deal that made him $620 million in a day—and, as a good employee, released his first album in 16 years exclusively on his corporation’s horrendous new Apple Music platform.
Meanwhile, the pop form they helped pioneer is now so enshrined that a hip-hop biography of Alexander Hamilton on Broadway has made its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the most celebrated artistic figure in America. And as for the output of NWA itself? I still prefer beauty to rage, but rage is infectious and multigenerational. For as Philip Larkin also said, “Man passes on misery to man / It deepens like a coastal shelf.”
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.
The return of the classic thriller. Sep 7, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 48 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
The Gift—a compact picture written and directed by the Australian actor Joel Edgerton—is the best American thriller in 20 years or more. On its own limited terms, The Gift is an almost perfect piece of work; in an extraordinarily controlled debut behind the camera, Edgerton doesn’t make a false move.
The increasingly unwilling suspension of disbelief. Aug 17, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 46 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Mission: Impossible–Rogue Nation makes no sense. Even more striking, this fifth installment in the Tom Cruise movie series based on the 1960s television show doesn’t even try to make sense.
Human-android love is a nonstarter. Period. Aug 10, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 45 • By JOE QUEENAN
In the uplifting, if somewhat confusing, film Tomorrowland, George Clooney plays a brilliant scientist who suffers from a broken heart. Long ago and far way, he fell in love with a girl named Athena when they were children. Athena was smart and spunky and seemed genuinely to like George Clooney as a boy. But over the next four decades, the relationship never went anywhere: It never developed, it never evolved, they did not live happily ever after. Not even close.
Amy Schumer benefits from Judd Apatow’s formula. Aug 3, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 44 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
With Trainwreck, the comedy impresario Judd Apatow has once again made a movie about an irresponsible adult-child who is compelled to grow up by the end of the film. This was the plotline of both The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, the two box-office sensations that made Apatow’s career, and it resurfaces here.
But there are fewer laurels for craftsmanship. Jul 27, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 43 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Every now and then, on Twitter or Facebook, I find myself referring to something I really enjoyed as “genius” or “a work of genius” or “pure genius.” Why do I do this? After all, I don’t actually think Richard Benjamin’s performance as an unhinged Jewish Van Helsing in the 1979 Dracula parody Love at First Bite is “genius.” I think it’s hilarious and unexpected and that Benjamin’s turn raises the movie’s comic game.
Inside Riley Anderson is the better place to be. Jul 20, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 42 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
The new Pixar film about an 11-year-old girl’s moment of crisis and change is called Inside Out, and it’s a perfect title—maybe too perfect for its own good. Everything the movie shows going on inside Riley’s head is glorious. And that’s most of what we see, so Inside Out deserves to be called the best American movie of the year so far.
The dinosaur quality of a blockbuster franchise.Jun 29, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 40 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Jurassic World is a movie about itself. It tells a story about the difficulty of making special effects exciting when it seems like audiences have already seen it all. In the movie, the titular theme park has been built on the same island that hosted the old Jurassic Park back in the day when people would gasp upon seeing a realistic-looking T. rex—just as many of the same multiplexes that are showing Jurassic World showed Jurassic Park 22 years ago.
Not for the first time, the star outshines the movie. Jun 22, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 39 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
As a comic actress, Melissa McCarthy resembles a first-rate baseball pitcher—because, unlike many of her brethren, who have a singular shtick and stick with it, she has both a curve and a fastball.
The heart and soul of a late revelation. Jun 15, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 38 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
William Butler Yeats might have described an old person as a “paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick,” but then Yeats didn’t live to see the 72-year-old actress Blythe Danner bloom like a bird of paradise in the first starring role she’s had on screen in her 43-year career. I’ll See You in My Dreams was made over the course of 18 days for $500,000, and its modesty is evident in every frame.
The first postapocalyptic vision remains the best. May 25, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 35 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
One Friday evening in 1980, I journeyed to the far West Side of Chicago to a drive-in on Cicero Avenue and attended what may have been the strangest double feature in the history of the world. The top of the bill was The Gong Show Movie, a film written by, directed by, and starring Chuck Barris, the host of the TV show of the same name. The B-picture was something called Mad Max.
When the superheroes join forces, it’s time to head for the hills.May 18, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 34 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Offering an opinion of Avengers: Age of Ultron is like reviewing Chex Mix. According to what stand-ard should one judge this mixture of breakfast cereal and pretzels and croutons and salt? Even if you find it bland or uninteresting you’ll probably have a few handfuls anyway. And if you love it, you love it uncritically and unreservedly—until, perhaps, you eat too much of it and then feel a little sick.
The camera as chronicler of marital deadlock.
May 11, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 33 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
There are several key shots in movies—the visual strategies directors and cinematographers and editors use to establish scene, mood, movement, and dramatic tension, guiding the viewer’s eye to important information.
Liam Neeson in action is worth watching. But for how long?Mar 30, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 28 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Run All Night is unquestionably the best of the seemingly endless series of thrillers Liam Neeson has made since 2008’s Taken made him a most unlikely action star at the age of 56. And yet, rather than being celebrated for rising above the others, Run All Night has been received so poorly by moviegoers one must now presume that Neeson’s surprising later-in-life dash through the international box office as one of the cinema’s most reliable money-makers is nearing its end.
How much longer for pleasant, diversionary cinema? Mar 16, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 26 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
There should be movies like Focus every week. It’s a stylish and amusing film with glamorous actors, memorable supporting players, lush settings, and lots of twists and turns. Will Smith plays a successful con artist who chisels people all over the world. He’s amused when a two-bit newbie played by Margot Robbie tries to run a hustle on him—amused and also powerfully attracted, because Margot Robbie may be the most beautiful woman to grace the screen since the 1960s heyday of Natalie Wood and Julie Christie.