Straight out of modern history and into the bank.
Once a person or a group reaches a certain level of fame or has gone through hardships or successes in life it is almost inevitable they will get a film made about them. You can expect royalty, politicians, infamous actors and oddballs, but there are few hip hop artists who have made the step to the silver screen. Part of this may be because most practitioners are still alive and still creating their legacies. The main stand outs of hip hop biopics so far would be Eminem and 50 Cent’s autobiographical turns in 8 Mile and Get Rich Or Die Trying and the glitzier Notorious about Notorious B.I.G. With Straight Outta Compton we get a look into N.W.A, a group which may still reunite without one of its members, the late Easy-E on the back of the strong showing of the film. Is there still a chapter to write in this rap epic?
Following a traditional tale of rising from the ghetto, Straight Outta Compton tells us the story of 5 young men, who were born in one of the most violent neighbourhoods in America, using music to help themselves escape lives of drug dealing and police brutality. In the film we focus mainly on the exploits of Easy-E, Dr Dre and Ice Cube. Dj Yella and MC Ren are present but may as well be wallpaper for all the impact they have on the plot. We see N.W.A as they rise from their roots to shake the subconscious of a nation, showing off their disputes with management and label, internal disputes and outside forces such as the police and media who tried to silence them. While this is a biopic and follows the rough historical events of the time, there seems to be a certain level of polish on the characters of Ice Cube and Dr Dre. That both men are producers on the film may explain this but unfortunately undermines the reliable narrator that is essential for the best biopics.
Halfway through Straight Outta Compton I was done with the film, we have been given the band's rise to fame and notoriety and we could be given a satisfying if historically inaccurate truth. Instead the film has a running time of 140 minutes and attempts to tackle too many issues with no real focus. The rise of the band is glossed over heavily, we go from early scenes of police brutality and Dr Dre breaking rules Djing in a club, then Paul Giamatti appears, montage with Cube spitting and vinyl being pressed then suddenly N.W.A are playing stadiums. Excuse my insistence, but I want to know more about the music in a music biopic with a Peter Jackson running time. Jumps forward and little reference to historical events (outside the LA Riots) also fail to clearly paint a picture of the bands cultural impact, instead we are given the squabbling and infighting we know about but don’t care about.
Having O’Shea Jackson Jr playing his father in the film added some credibility to the acting in the film. Again, a biopic has a responsibility to be as true to life as possible, and the dialogue presented reflects that. Slang, coarse language and limited vocabulary are thrown around as par for the course and it feels real. You can’t go into a period piece expecting expletives so we get what we need. The only stand out here is Paul Giamatti, his conniving manager is a role we have seen him play before in many ways but he is just so good at it that you can’t fault him for doing it again. The film plays with colour well as we transition from dark night shots early on to bright lights and then back into shady smoke filled rooms. Outside of this the film feels quite paint by numbers visually.
The biggest question I have of Straight Outta Compton was whether it was necessary. Did we need a film celebrating and detailing the lives of current artists who could still get back together? I understand that the film was able to generate big money and the timing in light of current racial tension in the US makes it poignant to look back at recent history, but could it not have been done with a fictitious story. My concern is that we have been given such a glossy version of history that the real truth, if one exists, may be buried forever. With the protagonists of the film involved and Suge Knight even being arrested during filming, what truth is there in the film we are watching. Unfortunately that’s a niggling feeling that stopped the movie wrapping me up in its mispaced and glossy narrative.