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Biopics about bands consisting of equals are far rarer than those about solo artists, and for good reason: Try doing justice to even three performers’ rise from obscurity to fame, especially if they then veer in different directions, and you hardly have time to develop the stars as human characters. So Straight Outta Compton, about the fractious career of gangsta-rap doorbusters N.W.A., turns into a bio-epic, running well over two hours without even mentioning the competing strands of hip-hop (from Public Enemy’s righteous anger to the feel-good vibes of De La Soul) that, by contrast, made N.W.A.’s furious sound so upsetting to so many people.
Produced by former N.W.A. members Ice Cube and Dr. Dre (among others) and directed by F. Gary Gray, who started his career with an Ice Cube video and went on to direct his comic outing Friday, the result is a self-portrait that predictably softens the edges of careers that generated even more controversy than we see here. But if the movie pushes most of the ugliest behavior off onto side players (like the notorious Suge Knight, played by R. Marcus Taylor), it does for the most part fulfill its mission, breathing life into the origin story of a group whose influence is still being felt.
Straight Outta Compton is most successful at showing the human realities behind a kind of music that, as soon as it was exposed to the mainstream, gave rise to media caricatures and knee-jerk reactions from law-enforcement and conservative groups. (Which isn’t to say it didn’t sometimes court those responses.) Playing the boys who became Cube and Dre, O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Corey Hawkins are just teenagers trying to master their crafts — lyric-writing and beat-making, respectively — in a hazard-strewn environment. The script contradicts some published accounts of how these two became collaborators with a drug dealer known as Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell): Here, Dre seeks him out as a source of capital. Only after the vocalists they’ve hired to record Cube’s lyrics back out is E cajoled into going on mike himself — and he’s laughably bad until Dre gives some direction.
That cut, “Boyz-n-the-Hood,” is a local hit, attracting the attention of an older white manager, Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). “I can make you legit,” he says, and he does connect the group with Priority Records, which releases the groundbreaking Straight Outta Compton. But he also manages to become a partner in Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records, and, though the movie is vague about the details, to underpay everyone in the group but E. This leads to the departure of Cube, who is forced to keep reminding people he wrote most of this stuff and isn’t getting his share; before long, Dre goes his own way, founding Death Row Records with the hotheaded Knight.
Before the breakup, though, there is “F— tha Police,” an anthem that scared the hell out of Middle America but makes perfect sense here, spilling from Cube’s pen only after multiple scenes in which racist, abusive LAPD officers humiliate the rappers and their neighbors for no reason. Touring behind Compton, the band fills huge venues, learning to be grateful for public outcry and police harassment, all of which just generates record sales.
While the movie makes sense of the passions behind that song, it isn’t at all concerned with those who claimed the group’s other tracks glorified crime. And it cares even less about complaints concerning misogyny in their lyrics: Women are nonentities in this film, the spoils of commercial success. Only after a couple rise to the rank of girlfriend or wife do they even get to speak, with two or three lines of dialogue suggesting they may be sentient creatures. In one repugnant moment, our boisterous heroes celebrate the conclusion of a comic-gangsta showdown by tossing a nearly naked woman into a hotel hallway and locking the door behind her.
N.W.A. members DJ Yella and MC Ren get minor attention here (as Yella, Neil Brown Jr. is the wry highlight of a few scenes). But they’re less important to the overall story than Knight, who as Death Row’s resident kingpin lived high while artists like Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg and others made him millions. In a variation from showbiz-bio convention, Compton gives us not one exploiter but two: The white Heller and the black Knight both enter the tale with something real to offer, and maybe even with decent intentions. But both are poisonous — violently so, in Knight’s case — and must be escaped by the artists even at the cost of great sums of money. No worries: There was plenty to be made after Compton‘s story ended.
Production company: Broken Chair Flickz
Cast: O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell Neil Brown, Jr., Aldis Hodge, Marlon Yates, Jr., R. Marcus Taylor, Paul Giamatti
Director: F. Gary Gray
Screenwriters: Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff
Producers: Ice Cube, Tomica Woods-Wright, Matt Alvarez, F. Gary Gray, Scott Bernstein, Dr. Dre
Executive Producers: Will Packer, Adam Merims, David Engel, Bill Straus, Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni
Director Of Photography: Matthew Libatique
Production designer: Shane Valentino
Costume designer: Kelli Jones
Editors: Billy Fox, Michael Tronick
Music: Joseph Trapanese
Casting directors: Cindy Tolan, Victoria Thomas
Rated R, 142 minutes
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