Musician biopics tend to be weird propositions. Several details that make the real life musician seem unfavorable are omitted or glossed over, while their usual “struggle” goes from rags to riches to coping with the riches. Ray to Dreamgirls to Walk the Line to Get on Up all have these characteristics and suddenly you realize these films tend to follow a strict formula. Perhaps that’s why Straight Outta Compton feels genuinely special with some new ingredients: the music being influenced by societal frustration and the society reacting to said music.
We primarily follow the lives of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy-E (MC Ren and DJ Yella don’t get a ton of screen time) as they deal with harassment from the cops in Los Angeles during the mid 1980s as well as life in the crime infested ghetto. Dre and Cube both have their own musical talents, and manage to persuade E to fund a rap label with his drug proceeds. Eazy-E raps their label’s first hit song which leads to them meeting Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), a sleazy music manager. Together the group is called NWA, and their first album is released. All hell breaks loose after that.
And I say that as a compliment. The film very wisely focuses on one of Straight Outta Compton’s more infamous songs: Fuck the Police. It does this through the first 30 minutes demonstrating the constant harrassment from the LAPD, leading to a tense moment that genuinely made my blood boil with several officers demeaning the rappers who were just eating hamburgers outside their recording studio. When Fuck the Police is first sung, it felt like a fantastic way to unleash that frustration.
This is the magic of the movie: taking the song that to this day is still derided as “inciting violence against law enforcement” (despite no evidence supporting such a proposition), and giving you all the context in vivid language and color to help you understand where the group first created the song. This even continues as they were arrested in Detroit after specifically being ordered by the cops not to sing the song.
The first half of this film is loaded with such energy while giving you time to laugh as the gang have wild parties and even an emotional breakdown when one of the musicians lose a family member while on tour. All of this creates a lot of empathy and character development which makes NWA’s breakup that much more disheartening in the second half of the movie.
If I have a critique of this movie at all is that the second half doesn’t feel as strong as the first half as the film decides to go with some typical musician biopic tropes: illness and double crossing from music managers. And of course they got Giamatti who can play a sleazy music manager in his sleep. It’s not that this part of the film is bad, actually it’s based on a lot of truth, but the pacing of the film is injured a bit.
Mostly because when NWA breaks up we have to keep switching between Eazy-E, Dre, and Ice Cube on their respective paths. Each of their journeys are interesting in their own ways, but we mostly follow E’s downfall as his legal and financial troubles mount compounded with his illness that ultimately takes his life. Jason Mitchell portays E, nailing the real life version down to his hairstyle and rapping. Further, he accentuates E’s struggle with losing his business, friends, and his life with a strong performance.
Corey Hawkins may not look like Dr. Dre back in his younger days, but Hawkins gives a fantastic performance in his own right. Particularly because it’s interesting to follow Dre as he partnered up with Suge Knight to form Death Row Records, which might as well have been a deal with the fucking Devil himself. R. Marcus Taylor conveys all the menace you may have heard of Knight as one of the most insane music executives of all time. Which makes Dre’s deals with him all the more tense as he tries to elevate the careers of Tupac and Snoop Dogg while Knight revels in brutal tactics.
Finally, O’Shea Jackson, Jr. is, for those who don’t know, Ice Cube’s first born son and was literally born to play as his father. Aside from looking like his dad back in his NWA days, Jackson nails many of his father’s mannerisms from his gait to even his speech style. Cube has admittedly a lesser presence in the film’s latter half as he didn’t nearly have as much drama in his post-NWA years as Eazy-E and Dre (it gets more than a little self-congratulatory with his solo album and film success) but that doesn’t take anything away from his presence in the first half of the film as well as his own rebellion against Heller.
The film closes with both Eazy-E’s downfall and the rise of the Rodney King riots, thus tying the omnipresent Fuck the Police back into the movie. While music biopics tend to exaggerate the effect an artist’s single song had on society, Straight Outta Compton opts instead to present the song and it’s effect on people as is: all the anger it generated among its fans to its calls for censorship by police and even the FBI. Now we live in an age where a 25 year old song is reflecting current frustration with law enforcement as each day another video demonstrates police brutality. Suddenly, every video has become footage of Rodney King, and the desire for an outlet grows with each passing day. Amazing what one song can vent.
Not since Fruitvale Station have I seen a film with such raw energy about race relations, and quite honestly I have yet to see a better biopic of a musician to date. This will likely make my Top 10 of the year, even amid my critiques (oh yes, I should also point out the actor who portrays Snoop Dogg looks nothing like the guy nor even acts like him…mercifully his appearance is brief). So with that, I’m giving this an enthusiastic…