With the New York Film Festival (Sept. 25-Oct. 11) adding new titles to the Oscar buzz after Venice-Telluride-Toronto, it’s time for Oscar voters to catch up on some films that opened in the distant past — i.e., between January and August.
The two are fact-based tales about the music scene in Southern California; they respectively deal with Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys in the 1960s, and with N.W.A in Compton in the 1980s. They’re very different in tone and approach, but both are about the creative act, and how artists can be frustrated but eventually nourished by their surroundings.
Both require a little patience from viewers. At first it’s jarring to have two familiar actors, Paul Dano and John Cusack, playing the same character in “Mercy,” but when the film kicks in, the casting makes sense. Both are excellent.
With “Compton,” AMPAS voters may be reluctant to watch a film about a “gangsta” culture that seems too foreign. Considering the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences demographic, it’s a safe bet that many of them grew up with Beach Boys music; it’s also a safe bet that few have ever bought an album by N.W.A. But in truth, the “Compton” milieu is as foreign-yet-familiar as “Jersey Boys.”
The first 40 minutes of “Compton” require some work, as it introduces a lot of characters. But don’t give up. About an hour into the movie, the film shifts into high gear with a sequence of N.W.A performing “F**k the Police” at a Detroit concert. It’s a piece of bravura filmmaking from director F. Gary Gray and his artisans that simultaneously shows the relationships among the group members, as well as all the reasons why fans loved N.W.A — and why the authorities didn’t. “These are not bangers, these are artists,” says Paul Giamatti (who happens to be in both films).
Each movie features a scene in a recording studio as they work on albums. Hollywood’s musical biopics often have trouble depicting the creative act, lamely showing a poet sitting at his desk, or a composer looking skyward for inspiration and then suddenly beginning to play the piano. But the sequences in “Love & Mercy” and “Compton” hit the nail on the head, showing the creative process in ways that are illuminating and entertaining.
Universal’s “Straight Outta Compton” is hot-button topical; “Love & Mercy,” less so. But both are about universal truths about self and family. So voters should catch up on the work of directors F. Gary Gray (no relation) and Bill Pohlad, and their teams of filmmakers. A lot of films from the January-to-August period have faded from the conversation, but these two still remain players.