“Straight Outta Compton” – An Affecting Music Biopic with the depth of Wikipedia

Straight Outta Compton, the biopic about West Coast Hip-Hop groundbreakers NWA (Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, DJ Yella and MC Ren) is one of the best made music biopics in years. It also manages to create an affecting snapshot of a particular era and place in culture. Unfortunately, the movie has the depth and nuance of a Wikipedia entry.  Of course, that’s not to dismiss the movie’s accomplishments. The movie’s mere existence constitutes a kind of cultural triumph. It may seem silly to us now with Dre selling headphones and Ice Cube starring in family-comedies but once upon a time these artists were considered by many on all parts of the political spectrum to be “dangerous” and “subversive.” It once seemed impossible to imagine a Hollywood film about a group that called itself “Niggaz With Attitude.” The cultural perception of rappers has since changed from terrors and trouble-makers to chic accessories of a pop food group. What was once “terrifying” about N.W.A  (their first album was the first ever slapped with the “Parental Advisory” label) in the late 1980s and early 1990s hasn’t become “safe,” so much as palatable and profitable by the mainstream. Thus there’s a conundrum with a movie like this especially when Cube and Dre are in charge behind-the scenes. Do they tell an unflinching & honest portrait of themselves or do they celebrate their significance? Fortunately or unfortunately they went “halvsies” on both making a final product that feels at times brutally earnest yet dramatically inert at the same time.

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The cultural snapshot succeeds where any sort of nuanced exploration of these artists limps. Example: Dr. Dre was once infamous for such incidents as a physical attack on the rapper and radio host Dee Barnes after she conducted an interview with Ice Cube (amongst a few other alleged sexual abuse scandals) and the movie skips over this in favor of focusing on Dre’s mad beats (pun intended). We get to see Ice Cube go from his humble beginnings to the superstar he is today but in spite of a powerful performance from O’shea Jackson Jr (Cube’s son) we never get a sense of who the man is beyond his accomplishments with the movies fleeting glimpses of his family life. This is to say there’s no “classified information” here. Straight Outta Compton is so beholden to the appeasement of so many artists, legacies, estates and the fan-idealized images that none of it coheres as a movie. There’s no point of view here, just the masculinized version of the generically entertaining behind-the-scenes “drama” you could find on ‘Empire’ on TV week-to-week.

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It’s not an oral history you’re getting with Straight Outta Compton, just the mushy boilerplate that happens anytime screenwriters (here it’s Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff) get near musicians. This is Behind the Music stuff on E network and VH1 that never goes far enough behind. There are cameos by someone pretending to be Tupac and by Keith Stanfield, who’s pretty great in his couple of scenes as Snoop Dogg. However by this point, you’re no longer in a film; you’re on a Spotify bio page. In fairness, were I telling a story that involved Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) — record executive, Dre’s ex-business partner, and convicted criminal — I’d be a fool not to do something with him. In fact, this movie leans so desperately on Knight’s purported evil that it even keeps him clad in satanic red. Every scene in his presence reroutes the movie toward psycho-thriller camp.

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The cinematic flourishes like the aforementioned do elevate an otherwise generic biopic (is there any other kind)and F. Gary Gray really dives into the awareness of the reality of racial tensions and free-speech battles. The strongest scenes — the ones in which Gray’s characteristic muscularity and cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s usual richness come off their leashes — involve the tension between the black community, the entertainment industry (especially the media), law enforcement and politicians. Ultimately the movie suffers as all music biopics once the characters start becoming more successful and their struggles less relatable. Going from the difficulties of putting out that first album, going on that first tour to hours of contractual disputes and wealth management is not only jarring but it also squanders the potential of the earlier proceedings. Straight Outta Compton stresses the exit, the “outta,” as all optimistic ‘hood movies try to. In doing so, this movie neutralizes the power of what made it possible for N.W.A to leave. Worst, it all but forsakes the brief but inexorable moment when these artists were the most riveting men in popular culture, hailing from one of the country’s notorious neighborhoods. On the news, poor neighborhoods — The Ghetto — were nightmares people were trained to fear, as were the black people who lived there. N.W.A blasted out of the nightmare, amplifying the threat. The music on that first album was crude and non-ideological (Dre’s production gave it artistic depth). The songs made no greater demands than for the nation’s attention. They weren’t coming for you; they wanted you to know they were there.

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Their scariness was certainly opportunistic. They’d taken societal menace as far as it could go. In the film, that arrest in Detroit inspires dollar signs. But in those police-confrontation scenes, you can see where the rage comes from. That’s real. Being fearsome was probably the only innate power otherwise available to powerless kids from South Los Angeles. No one wants to hear that, since it confirms the worst realities about who we’re not supposed to be as a country. There are clips of the Rodney King beating in 1991, and a brief re-staging of the ensuing riots and uprisings. Straight Outta Compton doesn’t want to psychologize though. It seems terrified to more directly connect that music to both its human and societal sources as well as examine the voices putting it all out there. Once, this was a group that struck a raw nerve. Now everybody seems content to remind us that they also struck it rich.

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