Now playing at a multiplex near you:
STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON
(Dir. F. Gary Gray, 2015)
This super-sized (nearly 2 and a half hours!) biopic of hip hop legends N.W.A., co-produced by the group’s key members, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, is undoubtedly a work of grand self mythology. But since self mythology is a large part of the hip hop game, it’s hard to imagine it any other way.
The flashy, larger-than-life sweep to the story of how Dr. Dre, Easy E, Ice Cube, MC Ren, and DJ Yella - portrayed respectively by Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Aldis Hodge, and Neil Brown Jr. - rose out of the poor South Central Los Angeles neighborhood of Compton is initially intoxicating; at times it feels like you’re a fly on the wall of a chaotic in-your-face party.
Of course, it’s a party that’s interrupted by the police every so often, as those infamous clashes with the law are a large part of what gave the West Coast gangsta-rap pioneers the moniker of “the most dangerous band in the world.”
In a role that’s not entirely unlike his part in the Brian Wilson biopic LOVE & MERCY – (i.e. the questionable manager/mentor archetype), Paul Giamatti plays Jerry Heller, a longtime music industry maven who befriends Easy E after the single “Boyz-n-the-Hood” makes a splash. Heller and Easy E start Ruthless Records, Heller lands N.W.A. a deal with Priority Records, and the band start recording the move’s 1988 namesake album “Straight Outta Compton.”
As per the formula, the film is broken down into a series of greatest hits highlights. The most effective of which is the sequence surrounding their signature anti-police brutality anthem “Fuck Tha Police.”
The controversial track was inspired by an incident dramatized in the film in which the group was harassed by asshole cops during the recording of their debut, and it caught the attention of the FBI. At a show in Detroit, N.W.A. is ordered by a local police chief not to play the song, but, of course, they defy the order and the audience goes from wildly chanting to rioting as cops rush the stage.
In between these energetic bursts of beat-filled energy we get a lot of complaining about not getting paid. Dr. Dre and the rest of N.W.A. bitch about not getting their contracts while Heller and Easy E are eating lobster dinners; after leaving the group, Ice Cube busts up the office of Priority Records exec Bryan Turner (Tate Ellington) because of non-compensation, and so on.
The rivalry between Ice Cube and his former band members, who call him “Benedict Arnold” on a track from their second and final album “Niggaz4Life,” makes for another entertaining back and forth, but the film peaks around the time that the Rodney King beating became a major part of the 24 hour news cycle in ’91. The narrative gets messier after that, with a mess of characters popping in and out of the mix, much like the brief guest cameos that pop up on many of hip hop albums. For example, Keith Stanfield puts in an appearance as Snoop Dogg, does a dead-on impression of the young rapper, then disappears.
There is a lot of criticism that the movie, which was scripted by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff (WORLD TRADE CENTER), sanitizes N.W.A.’s story by leaving out such incriminating events as when Dr. Dre attacked hip-hop journalist Denise “Dee” Barnes in a nightclub in ‘91, and that it glosses over the frequent charge of misogyny in their lyrics. Indeed, women do the short end of the stick in this celebratory boys club of a biopic – they are the girlz on the side of the boyz in the hood, often appearing only as groupies in hotel scene backgrounds or extras at topless pool parties.
The men dominate the proceedings so much that when Carra Patterson appears as Easy E’s girl Tomica in the final act scenes that depict the rapper on his deathbed with AIDS, I wasn’t sure how much she had been in the film before.
As for the leads, Hawkins and Mitchell nail their parts as Dre and E, and Giamatti puts in another reliable performance that's equal parts sincerity and sleaze. And, having done no research beforehand, I was floored by how much of a dead ringer for Ice Cube that Jackson Jr. is - I was like 'kudos to the casting director! They must have searched the globe to find a guy that looks and acts that much like the iconic rapper!' Then I find out that he's Ice Cube's son. Man, I'm such an idiot sometimes.
However, the rest of the playas hardly register. MC Ren and DJ Yella consulted on the film, but their onscreen doppelgangers have little to do or say, and R. Marcus Taylor as producer/promoter mogul Suge Knight, one of the film's other villains, casts an imposing shadow but little else.
Now, I was a white teen who was just starting to get into hip hop at the time that this stuff was going down. I was more a Public Enemy guy, but I remember having “Straight Outta Compton” on cassette back in the day. This successfully took me back to when I was working as a record store clerk reading about these stories in music magazines, and seeing it covered on MTV News.
Despite its self serving short-comings, this big screen bio captures the look, sound, and spirit of both N.W.A. and the era in spades. Just don’t go in looking for anything less than pure legend.