“Straight Outta Compton,” the new biopic of pioneering gangsta rap outfit NWA, is very much a conventional music biopic, with many of the conventional music biopic flaws. It relies on cliche. It’s too long by about a half hour. It distorts history in some respects and de-emphasizes things in others. It’s much, much more sympathetic to the people in the story who cooperated with the production than those who did not.
That said- I was overjoyed myself the entire time. The film executes the established biopic formula to near-perfection, it’s well-acted and well-staged, and thoroughly enjoyable even when relying on cliche. And let’s not forget that the idea of a major Hollywood studio making a movie about NWA- especially one that so greatly emphasizes the role police brutality played in the group’s rise- would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
If not for “Love and Mercy”- another epic in which Paul Giamatti played the heavy- “Compton” would be the best music biopic of the year.
NWA- which stood, of course, for Niggaz Wit’ Attitudes- emerged from Compton, Calif., in the late 1980s, led by drug dealer-turned rapper Easy-E, rapping standout Ice Cube and producer/performer Dr. Dre; DJ Yella and MC Ren rounded out the group. Plagued by poverty and seemingly non-stop harassment from police, the group emerged in the first Bush era, brought into major label prominence by possibly shady veteran manager Jerry Heller (Giamatti.)
The first half of the film, directed by F. Gary Gray, documents the group’s rise and brief time at the top, later undone by the departures of Cube and Dre and various infighting. The second half is mostly taken up by the group’s doings following NWA’s heyday, including Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s collaboration, Ice Cube’s solo work and eventual movie stardom and Easy-E’s death from AIDS complications in 1995.
Is it a bit too much, stretching the running time to nearly two-and-a-half hours? Yes. But that’s par for the course with these music films. And there’s some great stuff there, mostly involving Suge Knight (R. Marcus Taylor) as a villain who’s more mob boss than music label boss. The group’s long-running feud with law enforcement is well-depicted and timely, especially its staging of the famous incident, in 1989, when NWA was arrested for singing “Fuck the Police” at a concert in Detroit. Again, it sort of puts the lie to all the fashionable “PC Police” crap these days- NWA didn’t get called “problematic” or criticized on Twitter for their lyrics. They literally got arrested, by the actual police, for the crime of performing song lyrics that the cops didn’t like.
The cast is fairly strong from top to bottom, led by Corey Hawkins as Dre, Jason Mitchell (a true dead ringer) as Easy-E and O’Shea Jackson, Jr. playing his dad, Ice Cube. Giamatti plays Heller very well, as a charmer, and whether or not he was actually robbing the group blind is left unambiguous for most of the running time.
The film omits various things, most notably Dr. Dre’s much-reported-about history of violence against women, and that DJ Yella enjoyed a successful and prolific career as a pornographer. I don’t even remember seeing Arabian Prince, once a member of the group, in the film. One can’t help but notice that Dre and Cube- the two members of the group who are alive, successful and have the means to have shepherded the film to the point where they have producer credits- come across a bit more positively than anyone else.
There’s much less open drug use than I would imagine there probably was in real life, and the episode in which Heller enlisted the nutty Jewish Defense League against Ice Cube is mostly glossed over. There are a couple of continuity errors- in the opening scene, set in 1986, Eazy-E is wearing a White Sox hat that wouldn’t exist until several years later. And the actor playing Snoop Dogg, “Short Term 12”’s Keith Stanfield, looks nothing like him, even if he does have the voice down perfectly.
Still, “Straight Outta Compton” is ultimately a success, and if that music ever meant anything to you, it’s a must. I for one am rooting for its success so we get more definitive hip-hop biopics. Wouldn’t you watch a whole movie about Suge Knight’s life? Or Tupac’s? Chris Rock has talked about wanting to make a movie about a bunch of the original rappers, now living life as middle-aged men. Wouldn’t you want to see that?
“Notorious,” a biopic of Biggie, came and went a few years ago and isn’t well-remembered. “Compton” will likely be better-remembered.