One couldn’t help be interested to see what F. Gary Gray was going to do with the biopic of one of the most influential music groups of the past 30 years: NWA. Produced by two of the founding members, Dr. Dre (Andre Young) and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson), trying to find the proper tone for the legacy of one of the major factors that popularized gangsta rap to the masses is critical. Trying to balance out their appeal in the 90s to a 2015 sensibility, Gray was handed the cinematic legacy of one of the greatest groups in music history with two of its founding members as guiding hands.
Unfortunately Straight Outta Compton wants to reframe NWA’s legacy from what it was, with an aura of menace that was both intimidating and enthralling, into that of a hybrid of being a socially conscious, political group somewhere between Public Enemy and Rage against the Machine.
We meet the group right before they’re about to hit fame and fortune. Eric “Easy E” Wright (Jason Mitchell) is a drug runner realizing his time running crack is about to hit an end. Andre “Dr. Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins) is a DJ at a club spinning records but wanting to make music from the streets. O’Shea Jackson, known by his friends as his Cube, is a street poet looking for a way out. Ice Cube’s son O’Shea Jackson Jr. plays him, curiously enough, and the film focuses on this trio and actively ignore founding members MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) for the bulk of the film’s running time. We see their rise to fame, recording the song that would get them noticed (“Boyz-n-the-Hood”) and meet the man who change their lives: Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti).
We follow them through the typical musician cliches about the rise to fame and everyone seemingly actively working to take as much money from artists as possible. Throw in an avalanche of actors playing musicians who were influenced, produced by or actively worked with everyone involved and we get to see the depth of the influence of one group of artists who happened to be at the right place at the right time. The film wants to showcase the group as finding their sound fairly quickly and without years of work. That was profoundly not the case and this huge chunk of history, like taking out Pantera’s years as a successful Texas hair metal band, is eliminated for the narrative of the street kids finding their voice that Straight Outta Compton wants to be.
Straight Outta Compton does a handful of things beautifully and those mainly revolve around the music. Whenever the group is recording we get to see some amazing moments about the creative process. Easy E and Dr. Dre creating their first song, including a hilarious moment where the group it was designed for (H.B.O) passes because of problems with the lyrics and the group has to figure out what to do. Heller and the four remaining members of NWA listening to Ice Cube’s “No Vaseline” is another great moment purely for the reactions. The one thing Gray has done amazing is set up moments; there’s enough good moments in this film, one’s that you remember right after you leave the theater, that the film’s mistreatment of the historical record doesn’t seem nearly as big a deal as it should be.
The film’s main problem is in how it portrays the ultimate legacy of NWA. The film wants them to be his sort of progressive, racially conscious group of street poets pointing out the inequalities of American life in the inner city when the group’s reputation and persona were nowhere near that. It makes sense, given the climate of the past 18 months from Baltimore to St. Louis and all points between, but NWA was never about street life as art. They were the menace that you got behind; they were the bad guys you root for in the movies.
That was their appeal; Public Enemy was the socially conscious rap group and the Geto Boyz were the ones who pushed the limits of the genre. NWA and their aura of menace, from the all black apparel to the black Los Angeles sports team hats, gave them a look that oozed cool to teenagers and dangerous to their parents. They oozed everything rebellious to a generation of teenagers that rooted against Duke University for being square pegs in the new round hole of America. This isn’t new, though, as this film has the same inherent problem as another musical biopic did.
Straight Outta Compton has the same problem that Notorious did; it was produced by those with an emotional stake in how the historical narrative would be set by those too lazy to look up the real history. If it were small details it would be one thing; massive things about the group’s history are changed wholesale, including the substantial musical history the group had together before NWA started, to make it seems more of a converging of talent as opposed to the one thing that worked after a number of things that didn’t.
If it was a handful of small, inconsequential details it would be one thing. But a radical wholesale change of the past to fit a modern narrative, made by those who lived it, gives the film an inauthentic feel that it can’t shake throughout. The full story is much more interesting than this one; seeing a young Andre Young in the World Class Wreckin’ Cru or a young O’Shea Jackson Sr. as a college student in architectural drafting would give a different insight than the “fight the power” type of narrative Gray is going for. Gone is Dr. Dre’s fairly notorious violence against Dee Barnes, among other things, for platitudes about his genius. And while Dre shaped nearly two decades of music as both an artist and producer it’s large details like this that are phased out when they could potentially add much more into understanding the men behind the song “Fuck tha police,” among others.
NWA wasn’t that group and that narrative doesn’t fit the musical group that Straight Outta Compton wants them to be.
This feels more like a Lifetime film called Rappin’: The NWA Story than what’s supposed to be the definitive biography of one of the watershed groups in music. Straight Outta Compton could’ve been something substantial. In the end it winds up being just another biopic about the perils of fame, written to settle grievances from decades ago.
Director: F. Gary Gray Writers: Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge. Alan Wenkus Notable Cast: O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge, Paul Giamatti