by Nathan Sacks
Even by the standards of the musical biopic, Straight Outta Compton commits remarkable acts of historical revisionism. This is a sanitized, Hallmark, cookie cutter version of reality that is inexplicably being described as “unvarnished” and “uncompromising” by movie critics. Please. The film has several coats of varnish and features loads of artistic and dramatic compromises so glaring that parts of the film are unintentionally funny. In fact, SOC isn’t so much a biopic as it is a superhero film that treats Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre (and only those three men) as epochal geniuses with only minor, overcomeable flaws.
Director: F. Gary Gray
Producers: Matt Alvarez, Scott Bernstein, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, David Engel, F. Gary Gray, Bill Straus, Tomica Woods-Wright
Writers: Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge (story), Alan Wenkus (story)
Cinematographer: Matthew Libatique
Editors: Billy Fox, Michael Tronick
Music: Joseph Trapanese
Cast: O'Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge, Marlon Yates Jr., R, Marcos Taylor
US Theatrical Release: August 14, 2015
US Distributor: Universal Pictures
This film is why all moviegoers should fear the “authorized” biopic. Ice Cube and Dr. Dre have been intimately involved with the script, casting, and promotion of the film. For two men capable of such uncritical self-regard, this should be troublesome. Dre’s memories of the period are so vivid that he put out his first new album Compton: A Soundtrack, in 16 years (it’s pretty great). But surviving members MC Ren and DJ Yella have been less involved with the project, to what is clearly its detriment.
To get the obvious out of the way, the music still holds up. Straight Outta Compton (the album) not only put west coast hip-hop on the map forevermore, but it also holds up as an enduring masterpiece of the genre’s “golden age.” Imagine being a hip-hop fan in the 12-month period when SOC, Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions and De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising all dropped. It must have been like a Japanese film buff in 1953-54 when Ugetsu, Seven Samurai, and Tokyo Story all came out.
Why this film exists is pretty clear—(the suffocating bane on our culture that is) 90s nostalgia. I’m sure classic rap fans will enjoy the way director F. Gary Gray lovingly recreates the urban playground of Compton in the late 80s as well as various music videos featuring the group and other 90s signifiers, cameos from 2Pac and Snoop Dogg, and several references to previous Cube/Gray collaboration Friday. Yes, N.W.A. the group is a product of the late 80s, but Straight Outta Compton the film is all about “remember the 90s?” just as previous rap films Notorious and the various BET biopics of TLC and such were. 90s nostalgia is a real moneymaker in 2015. Don’t believe me? We have several upcoming Tupac biopic projects. Where are the Kool Herc or Kurtis Blow biopics?
(And yes, white thinkpiece writers, there are plenty of depictions of brutal police to fill your latest bullshit pop culture missives on Ferguson or whatever).
Straight Outta Compton depicts N.W.A. as the brainchild of the three famous celebrities of the group and minimizes the contributions of MC Ren, DJ Yella, and especially Arabian Prince. This is a severe historical rewrite. Of all the members of the group, only Cube and Ren could actually rap (Dre’s limitations on the microphone are nary mentioned in the movie, I imagine on the orders of the Apple Billionaire himself). Ren had the talent to be as accomplished as Cube, and basically wrote the entirety of N.W.A.’s second album, Efil4zaggin, another fact that is barely remarked upon in the film. DJ Yella’s contributions to the group are never really explained, other than that he is Dr. Dre’s horndog sidekick.
The film hits all the biopic beats, one after the other, with astonishing sameness. It begins with Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) in the midst of a bad drug deal that gets worse as police tanks bust up his block. Eazy escapes the cops by running over rooftops—again, he is a superhero, and the audience is invited to love him uncritically.
We slowly meet the other members of the group. Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Cube’s son) is a high schooler writing rhymes on the school bus, introducing himself as “the dopest poet you know.” Dre (Corey Hawkins) is first seen lying in a pile of records, listening to Roy Ayers on headphones and silently plinking out the melody in his head. It’s a lovely moment, actually, and about as much depth as the film ever gives to Dre’s love of classic funk samples.
For a film as long as it is, Straight Outta Compton gives surprisingly little insight into the minds and passions of its subjects. By the time we meet Cube and Dre, Cube is already a perfect writer whose every word slays an audience, while Dre is a house DJ for the World Class Wrecking Cru whose insufferable boss keeps telling him to play slow jams instead of the “hard, street” music Dre favors. I imagine a much better movie that begins earlier in Dre’s career, showing how he honed his craft, learned how to sample and spin, and became a great producer. Or, imagine a film that shows Ice Cube developing his craft and his voice. There is none of this here. Instead we skip ahead to the group cutting Eazy-E’s “Boyz N the Hood” and from there their future stardom is unquestioned and predetermined.
The film’s biggest snow job is indeed Dre, portrayed as a wide-eyed naif who is shocked by the violent behavior of Death Row Records svengali Suge Knight (portrayed, eye-rollingly, as a dead-eyed psycho by R. Marcus Taylor). Yes, this is Dr. Dre, the one who repeatedly bashed a female MTV VJs face into a wall and then threw her down a flight of stairs, and then later bragged about it in a Spin interview. The proud author of “To Kill a Hooker,” “She Swallowed It,” and “Bitches Ain’t Shit.” It should be no big surprise that if you are looking for a movie that passes the Bechdel test, Straight Outta Compton ain’t it. There are the usual unnecessary scenes of groupie porn but even less acceptable is the fact that Ice Cube, Eazy-E, and Dr. Dre all have girlfriends in their lives who dote over their men and are never named.
Without giving too much away, the film ends on an incredibly crass note, simultaneously a corporate plug and a possible setup to a Dre-led spinoff film (as I said, a lot of this feels like a superhero movie). That’s just before the film finishes up with a montage featuring testimonials from Kendrick Lamar, 50 Cent, Eminem and others talking about how much N.W.A. matters crossed with footage of Dr. Dre selling Beats to Apple, clips from Friday and other examples of Ice Cube’s “successful” movie career. Again: crass.
Watching Straight Outta Compton, I kept thinking about Oliver Stone’s The Doors, another musical biopic where the filmmaker is in punch-drunk love with the celebrity mystique of its subject rather than the subject itself. Like Stone, Gray doesn’t seem to have much idea of how music is actually created, written, and performed in a studio. There’s an unintentionally hilarious scene in Stone’s film when guitarist Robbie Krieger performs a new song he’s working on, “Light My Fire,” to the band, and keyboardist Ray Manzarek says something like “Wow that’s a #1 hit! Hold on while I come up with a groovy keyboard intro!” Which he then does instantly. Similarly, in Straight Outta Compton, we get scenes where Dr. Dre is noodling on a keyboard, just a note from figuring out “Nuthin’ But a G Thang” keyboard line, when Snoop Dogg walks in with lyrics all prepared, as if the song just sprang from a spontaneous jam session. I just seriously doubt it took 10 seconds of noodling on a keyboard to create “Nuthin But a G Thang.” Songwriting has always been a tricky thing for filmmakers to dramatize and Straight Outta Compton is yet another musical to get a big “F” in this department.
Straight Outta Compton isn’t trash—it is well-acted, affecting, and even has kinetic, exciting filmmaking at points—but it is hardly distinguished in the musical biopic canon. The fact that it ignores the many vile characteristics of Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre is not a unique flaw, but it flies in the face of the film’s claim to “authenticity” and “realness,” the strength of the street knowledge that N.W.A. dropped on classic records almost 30 years ago. It may honor its subjects’ wishes of how they wanted to be portrayed, but it doesn’t honor the tone and character of the music.