Straight Outta Compton is the biopic of rap group NWA, and chronicles the group’s formation, career together, breakup, and the fallout from it all. It stars a group of mostly unknown actors led by O’Shea Jackson Jr., son of founding NWA member Ice Cube, who plays his father (the similarities in their speaking voices and vocal inflections are so many that if you closed your eyes and listened to them both you’d have a hard time distinguishing between the two). The only real name actor in the whole film is Paul Giamatti who plays the group’s manager, Jerry Heller.
The film kicks off with introductory scenes for the most important members of the group (and the men behind the film’s creation) – Eric “Eazy E” Wright, Andre “Dr. Dre” Young, and O’shea “Ice Cube” Jackson. Wright is a level drug dealer, Dre is a club DJ and a an employee/member of a small local group, the World Class Wrecking Crew (not mentioned in the movie), and Cube is a gifted lyric writer who’s still a student (he was still in high school at the movie’s outset). They and the other two members (DJ Yella and MC Ren) all know each other in one way or another – Cube and Dre have been doing music together, Dre and Yella work together at the club, Eazy and Ren are boys, and Dre annd Eazy know each other. All five are equally frustrated with life and interested in doing something else so they get together and put out a song, “Boyz in the Hood”, which blows up locally and gets them noticed by a quasi-washed up manager Jerry Heller who gets them into the music business, and the rest is history. The movie covers the time span from right before they formed the group up until shortly after the death of Wright from AIDS in 1995.
So how was it?
What worked for me
One of the biggest tasks going in was to present things in such a way that you understood why the group did what it did. With lyrics that crossed all sorts of lines back in 1987-88 and a demeanor that suggested they didn’t give a damn about decorum or respect, getting these guys over as sympathetic figures to anyone who wasn’t already a fan is a pretty tall order. They weren’t fun, rebellious party animals like Beastie Boys or full of highly educated righteous indignation against the system like Public Enemy. They were rebelling yes, but in an angry and vulgar fashion that didn’t make it onto records at the time. The film succeeded here in my opinion; instead of trying to win us over with sentimental “these guys are just misunderstood” kind of stuff they opted instead to show us the environment they grew up in and how it shaped them. After seeing the scenes where members of the group interacted with the police you can understand, even if you ultimately don’t agree, why Ice Cube would be driven to write a song entitled ‘F- tha Police’. In their eyes the police were perpetual antagonists who abused their authority with impunity, often violently. That’s not what I grew up with so it didn’t make sense to me when they did it, but looking back I can see how a group of guys in their early 20s would react to the treatment they were getting from people who were supposed to be protecting and serving.
The acting was excellent. Going with three virtually unknown leads was a gamble but it paid off as all three nailed their parts from the speech cadence to the mannerisms. Giamiatti is one of the better actors in the business and he struck the perfect balance in his portrayal of Heller as both the man the group owed their entrance in the business to and the one who took advantage of them over the long run. Heller earns the ire of the audience over the course of the movie but at the end he seems more like a man who did what people in his position often do as opposed to a special kind of evil figure. You don’t give him a pass but one can see where any number of people in the music business could have done the group the same way.
The group’s music adds to the movie as well. While it may be hard to take some of the lyrical content as adult with kids and what not, when juxtaposed against the surroundings that molded the members of the group it’s understandable and still digestible. Their earliest songs were both a railing against and embrace of the world they lived in. There was anger over the poverty, the violence, and the relationship with the forces of society but there was also a sense of ‘these are my people and I’m gonna talk them up no matter how they look to you’. And say what you want, but they were good at what they did. There were multiple imitators that followed them but none were as talented a writer as Ice Cube or a producer as Dr. Dre. It’s the difference between a comedian who’s funny and curses a lot versus one who just curses a lot. There was real artistry behind their earliest work and you were reminded of that in the movie.
Lastly, I was glad they stuck to the group itself and did not go off on tangents. Given the sheer volume of people in the industry that they crossed paths with there were a million different rabbit holes that they could have led us down. Dre’s post-NWA run with Death Row was included in the latter parts of the film, but not so much that we lost focus on his original collaborators. Snoop Dogg and Tupac made brief appearances but that was all. And there was no attempt at overextending things to include any interaction with Dre and Eminem, which wouldn’t have served any purpose to chronicling the story at hand.
What didn’t work
The movie was produced by Dre, Cube and Eazy E’s widow, so of course it portrays all three of them in a more positive light than was often reality. Dre’s well documented assault on Dee Barnes was completely omitted from the film and some of Cube’s more controversial lyrics as a solo artist were not touched on (his post-NWA verses that used Heller’s ethnicity as part of a dis record were played, but none of his other racially charged content). NWA’s final album, recorded and released after Cube’s departure, was mostly absent. Given that it almost completely stripped away any of the social commentary that Cube’s presence brought and was a virtual celebration of nihilism, misogyny, and violence that is impossible to listen to now, some time should have been spent exploring that change. MC Ren didn’t get the respect he deserved as a member of the group. His verses were almost as gripping and memorable as Cube’s on their first album and yet in the film he was treated like he barely mattered.
Overall Grade: A
This was a very good movie, probably the best musical biopic I’ve seen. Even though the songs were featured throughout it was more than just a bunch of dialogue scenes to set up performances. The cast did some real acting and told a great story from start to finish. The issues I had with it are all ones of omission; the movie was two and a half hours as it is and including everything would have put it in Lord of the Rings territory, length-wise. There’s actually enough material to do a sequel. Dre’s time at Death Row alone could fill a two hour movie. Cube’s transition from the guy who wrote ‘F- tha Police’ to an actor who plays cops onscreen and does family films could as well. That’s another way of saying that this was good enough to leave you wanting more even after doing a good job of covering its subject. Highly recommend.