Movies We Like
Straight Outta Compton
The music biography has been a popular source of material for movies going back to the creation of the talkies. Even forgetting all the classical composers, the music of the last one hundred years--from jazz to rock and everything in between--seems to continually stir the imagination of filmmakers. And why not? The music bio is a tried and true genre that usually follows the same rags to riches formula and all the excesses that comes with it. From the Glenn Miller and Gene Krupa Stories through Lady Sings The Blues, The Buddy Holly Story, Coal Miner’s Daughter, Sid and Nancy, La Bamba, Great Balls of Fire, The Doors, Selena, What’s Love Got to Do with It?, Control, and of course Ray and Walk The Line, all these films offer different levels of entertainment value. And you can be sure many more are on their way as the greats of the 1960s and '70s continue to reach super-icon status and death.
The last major popular music genre to explode on to the scene has been rap or hip-hop. Though less than forty years old, it has already gotten its share of bios, mixing the “sorta fictional” with the more traditional “lets put on a show” type of music film (Krush Groove, 8 Mile, Get Rich or Die Tryin', Notorious and the lost & forgotten Run-D.M.C. flick Tougher Than Leather). But with Straight Outta Compton, the still young rap-bio has finally gotten its first nearly-great movie. It’s the mostly true story of a fairly diverse group of teens from the tough streets of Compton who came together to form N.W.A. (Niggaz Wit Attitudes). They had a quick and controversial rise and an even quicker implosion, but their impact is still felt today. They weren’t The Beatles of rap. They were more like The Sex Pistols, a band who came on later in the game and only briefly, but whose energy and rage helped make everything before them sound overly safe and instantly dated.
Back in '86, Andre “Dr. Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins) was part of a backing vocal group for a sorta Prince-like soul crooner along with his pals MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.). They find their hip-hop footing when they hook up with another bud, O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson, a prolific writer of rhymes and talented rapper (played surprisingly well by his actual son, O’Shea Jackson, Jr). Dre starts a music label with Eric Wright aka Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell, outstanding) a minor league player in the drug trade, who eventually brings some hardcore street swagger to the group and a truly unique voice. Off the success of their record “Boyz-n-the-Hood” they come to the attention of an old school music manager, Jerry Heller (the great Paul Giamatti), who helps take them to the next level. Most surprisingly, he seems to develop a deep friendship with Eazy-E, as the the two join up to basically rip-off the rest of the guys. NWA has the classic rock-bio meteoric rise. Along the way there is family death, guns, in-fighting, topless chicks at pool parties, and most famously, run-ins with the cops, prompting Cube to write the group's controversial anthem “Fuck Tha Police.” Eventually, Cube drops out over money squabbles and then Dre hooks up with the Darth Vader-y Suge Knight (the very believable Hulk-like R. Marcos Taylor) to form his own company, leaving E and Jerry to their own demise until E dies of AIDS. And this was all in less than ten years!
In real life, this is as big a rags-to-riches story as there is, since Dre and Cube have become mainstream media moguls and super wealthy entrepreneurs. History is written by the victors, which is why Yella and Ren become background characters, while E and Jerry play the antagonists. And though as producers here, the films sometimes plays like a valentine to themselves, under the lively direction of now-veteran director F. Gary Gray, the movie is as entertaining as one could ever hope for. The concert scenes are truly dynamic, peaking with the band taunting the police in Detroit (something we’ve seen in many music movies from The Doors to The Blues Brothers). Other than a run-in with a record company executive Cube seemed to just rise and rise, without a fall. Dre had to deal with the scary Suge, but otherwise he rose and rose (though he had some run-ins with women that are conveniently not covered here). The arc of the story is Eazy-E’s rise and fall. Though he also enjoyed some solo success, he just didn’t seem to have the more grounded nature of his two bandmates to be able to handle success, adversity, or his complicated relationship with Jerry (who is also allowed to be fairly three dimensional, and not as stereotypical as the usual Jewish businessmen that have been found in many early Blaxploitation flicks).
Directed Gray started out as a music video director, made his feature debut with Ice Cube’s Friday and went on to make a number of solid action flicks, including Set It off, The Negotiator and The Italian Job. With Straight Outta Compton he has managed to take clichés and make them seem fresh; in the end the relationships and conflicts between the four main characters really are more interesting and even moving than one finds in most films of the genre. The film's misogyny can be off-putting, but it’s certainly toned-down from the misogyny of their lyrics. Ironically, in real life Cube seems to have settled into (by all reports) a clean-cut family man, married for over 20 years. It’s a wonder anyone could survive the constant harassment from the police these guys experienced without at least a touch of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Now, of course, we understand why they were so mad at the cops, as murders by the police of unarmed black youth have really come into the open with camera phone evidence, revealing how much truth these guys were speaking.