N.W.A. is a unique subject for a music biopic because they’re tied in so deeply to their time and place. Unlike other music groups, which are more about the origins of the individual, N.W.A.’s power stemmed not only from its members’ talent, but also from the oppressive life of crime and police brutality in south Los Angeles. However, F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton is more comfortable in the standard music biopic mode, focusing on the saintly personalities and having their surroundings serve as inspiration but rarely as a rallying cry. Based on recent events, Straight Outta Compton should feel more immediate, but more often than not, it comes off like a salute to an already revered, influential group rather than a call to arms.
Beginning in Compton in 1988, the story follows Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell), Andre “Dr. Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins), and O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) as they came out of the crime-ridden Compton streets to form the groundbreaking rap group N.W.A. (“Niggaz Wit Attitudes”). Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby (Neil Brown Jr.) and Lorenzo “MC Ren” Patterson (Aldis Hodge) are also members, but they’re basically background players along for the ride on three storylines. There’s Eazy-E, who got the good side of the business deal at first by partnering with manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti); Ice Cube as the master lyricist who was savvy to the fact that Eazy-E and Heller were giving him a raw business deal; and Dr. Dre as the producing, musical wunderkind who would be lured to form Death Row Records with Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor).
Gray’s film has an explosive opening, and everything that goes into N.W.A. as a group is filled with energy and excitement even if it all rings of a narrative that’s been codified and oversimplified into creating legends in the standard music biopic mode of “transformative event = hit song”. The moments where the movie really comes alive are thanks to the excellent performances, especially from Mitchell, Hawkins, and Jackson Jr., who imbue their respective artists with humanity but also a level of charisma, which translates to their star power. We understand why Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre, as opposed to other rappers of the time, were able to become superstars.
That charisma carries the movie because Gray has no time for getting into any deeper complexities, which is a shame because Straight Outta Compton has a unique position as far as being a music biopic. It can serve as a portrait not just of musicians, but their surroundings, and how their situation compares to our current struggle with race and power. While the movie shouldn’t have to carry this particular issue, it seems like it wants the police struggle without any of the nuance. That’s not to say the movie needs a police perspective (it absolutely doesn’t) or anything like that, but it flattens out the world so that being harassed by the police outside the recording studio immediately leads to their hit song “Fuck the Police,” in a simple A to B retelling.
Maybe how it’s laid out in the film is how it actually happened, but the way it plays out feels like mythologizing, which is what’s bound to happen in most music biopics, and why so many of them feel like tributes to their subjects rather than honest explorations of their foibles and the impact of their music, not just in terms of selling albums or reflecting the culture, but the actual tone. Straight Outta Compton only matches the verve and energy of the eponymous 1988 album when the group is together, and even then it feels like a highly polished version to the point where Gary makes fawning digressions like an entire scene devoted to the origins of “Bye, Felicia”.
Once the group starts falling apart, so does the film. N.W.A. fell apart for fairly typical and mundane reasons—money, and Gray has a difficult time dramatizing contracts and business deals, especially since what amounts to corporatization pulls the members away from their initial problems. The villains go from being the cops to Suge Knight and Jerry Heller, and the movie loses its dramatic pull and just starts going through the motions of Eazy-E dying from AIDS, Dr. Dre realizing that he partnered with a sociopath, and Ice Cube’s burgeoning movie career.
The most telling scene comes near the end of the film when L.A. is in chaos with mass rioting following the Rodney King verdict. As their city goes up in flames and the racial tensions they chronicled in the music continue to explode, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre are in their cars, separately cruising through the madness. They’re now passive observers, untouched by what’s happening, and protected by the wealth that allowed them to leave their circumstances. It’s a tragic scene that showed that perhaps nothing has changed or will ever change (look no further than Ferguson this past week), but Gray doesn’t delve any deeper, and instead moves to romanticize an N.W.A. reunion that never happened because Eazy-E died from AIDS.
What would that N.W.A. looked like? What would they have rapped about? Straight Outta Compton doesn’t ponder those questions or really much of anything. It’s firmly comfortable being a celebration of Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre, three men who could do no wrong, and without the tremendous, funny, and winning performances from the cast, the film would be a wholly interminable hagiography. Even with the top-notch acting, it’s still a movie that’s more concerned with financial beefs than the fierce creativity that electrifies the first half of the film. As it stands, Straight Outta Compton is a tribute that goes on for far too long yet feels like it only scratches the surface.