Biopics are the most awkward of genres. We all live our own lives and we know from them that unlike movies they aren’t neat; the overarching themes don’t become obvious until years after the fact and things happen by chance and luck that in a movie would be nothing but contrivance. Finding the balance between accuracy and trying to wrap the messiness of not one, but five lives into a cohesive and emotive story is one of the greatest achievements of Straight Outta Compton, and it’s most glaring faults come from wrestling the insane story of NWA into a hard hitting movie.
‘Fuck Tha Police’ might just seem inflammatory until you see the crew members wrestled to the floor by LAPD just for standing outside their recording studio
Telling the story of rap collective NWA in the decade from 1986 and the lives of its members Eazy E, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, MC Ren, DJ Yella and their manager Jerry Heller. There are two audiences for this film – and I have no doubt that the first, the hip-hop heads, will love it. Surprise appearances from Tupac and Snoop Dogg are a joy to behold and the film’s best scenes see the crew members in the booth: the hilarity of seeing Eazy try and fail to rap on beat and the composition of classics like ‘Express Yourself.’ The film works in tangent to, and enriches, NWA’s breakout album of the same name. The biggest selling point of the film sees the socio-economic context for the most controversial track on the record. ‘Fuck Tha Police’ might just seem inflammatory until you see the crew members wrestled to the floor by LAPD just for standing outside their recording studio, at which point the song and their later defiance of the police’s instructions for them not to play it in Detroit become admirable defiance, and director F. Gary Gray’s obvious love for the music makes for thrilling cinema.
At times though I think that the second audience for the film is much neglected; to people uninterested in rap music the scenes at Death Row studios must seem little more than self-indulgence. Names of Ice Cube’s solo records are tossed around and personally I know what’s going on but I see no reason somebody not well versed in the output of the lead characters would. Meanwhile scenes that seem to cater to those whose interest isn’t the music are incredibly forced; a weird car chase with Dr Dre that comes out of nowhere and has no purpose and an opening scene that seems more like the start of a ghetto thriller doesn’t fit anything that follows.
The film also seems to have difficulty reconciling the contrivances of reality with the need to pull together a tight plot; one second Eazy is in the booth unable to rap and the next he’s the head of the NWA group; it obviously happened but in the film it’s a leap that’s not explained at all. The same goes for the characterisation of manager Jerry Heller who is portrayed as being a humble and visionary man, who is distraught of accusations that he’d ripped off his artists, but then every member of NWA speaks of it as fact; this dichotomy is never clarified, we don’t know from the film whether he was guilty or not. Perhaps that what happens when you have those involved as producers. Indeed this leads to what might be the film’s greatest flaw: Dr. Dre and Ice Cube come out of this film looking a lot better than Eazy E, which is a little uncomfortable given that he isn’t here to speak for himself. It’s obvious he was at times unhinged which is fine as part of a warts and all portrayal, but this isn’t that: Dr. Dre appears in the film as a level headed leader; but he recently had to apologise for his various abusive relationships at the time, for which he cited his alcoholism. It’s an unflattering discrepancy.
That said; as a film in itself, it’s a very entertaining movie. Split between their rise to fame and the creative process and their later beefs and the difficulty of trying to reconcile Compton ghetto mentality with conducting music business professionally. The actors do a great job, especially O’Shea Jackson Jr. who plays his dad, Ice Cube here and really bring the character to life. They are all funny and their creativity and defiance are a joy to watch. The normally stellar Paul Giamatti as Jerry Heller actually gets overshadowed here, and failed to disappear into his character in the same way the rest of the cast did. As always with tales of brotherhood, the NWA’s bond and respect for each other’s work (even when the record is dissing them) is genuinely heart-warming, and the moments where the façade of toughness falls away and reality catches up with them is genuinely heart-breaking. The last twenty minutes deal with Eazy’s death and those scenes are very sad. Thankfully when the film broke the forth wall to tribute him the whole movie isn’t derailed; and the shots of the crew’s later successes and comments from Kendrick Lamar are a fine way to finish.
While far from a perfect movie, Straight Outta Compton is a necessary one – that finally turns an impossibly talented group into the music icons their rebellious status got in the way of for a time, and with their debut album back in the billboard top ten, its successes speak for itself.
Liam Inscoe -Jones
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