Music biopics tend to follow a fairly common arc. There is the rise out of obscurity, the moment of inspiration, success, and excess, a falling out, and then ultimately reconciliation. It is a familiar journey and, in the end, these movies don’t bring much more to the table than the warm glow of nostalgia.
“Straight Outta Compton” traces this same path but never has a music biopic felt so prescient. This movie is a live wire that says as much about today as it does the late 80s-early 90s era it depicts. The result is one of the best films of the year.
This is the story of NWA, the group that took gangsta rap mainstream and launched the careers of iconic hip hop figures Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Eazy-E.
Rap had been around for a while, but NWA was the first group that really scared the white establishment with songs like “Boyz-n-the-Hood” and “F*** tha Police,” which took stories of the inner-city into the suburbs of America.
“Straight Outta Compton” shows where all that anger and energy came from as these five young black male teenagers lived with police harassment and gang violence as an everyday occurrence.
Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) is portrayed as the musical talent, a skilled DJ who sees the potential in “reality rap.” Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr, who is Ice Cube’s son and might be the first instance of a son playing his father in a major motion picture) is the lyrical genius. Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) is a low-level criminal with a big personality who becomes the group’s frontman and financier. Also along for the ride are DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), who are the hip-hop equivalent of the drummer and the bass player.
The group initially enjoys some modest, local success until they meet Jerry Heller (played by Paul Giamatti), who helps land NWA a major record deal, taking the group nationwide.
From there, we see the aforementioned rise and fall as we meet other figures synonymous with the era like Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) and Snoop Dogg (Keith Stanfield).
First and foremost, this is a well-made film as director F. Gary Gray (who directed Ice Cube in “Friday”) gives all of the main subjects their due while also assembling an excellent cast. The movie feels a little long (clocking in at well over two hours), but it is also hard to say what could be cut; and while we’re quibbling, it also glosses over the misogyny that was rampant not only in NWA’s lyrics but their lifestyle as well.
The tension in this movie is intense at times, with the Rodney King trial and L.A. riots playing out in the background. NWA channeled a frustration that is as real today as it was then, as we have to look no further than the streets of Ferguson to see how relevant this movie is.
The stakes are also much higher than in other music biopics. As the rules of the street start to creep into the music business, not signing a contract could result in a severe beating, or a setlist at a concert could mean jail time.
Last, but certainly not least, is the music, which feels as alive and edgy now as it did when it hit the streets almost 30 years ago. “Straight Outta Compton” is one of those movies that is a perfect illustration of how much has changed and how little has changed in the last three decades in our country.
“Straight Outta Compton” is rated R for language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence, and drug use.