Man, this has been a great year for music biopics (a genre that tends to follow the predictable old “and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened” structure). Love & Mercy and Straight Outta Compton? In the same year? Both films are on my (ever-growing) list of favorite films of the year. (Thoughts on Love & Mercy here). (and FYI, my favorite films so far: Girlhood, Ex Machina, Ocean of Helena Lee, Welcome to Me, Magic Mike XXL, It Follows, Mad Max, About Elly (made in 2009 but just getting a release now), and Phoenix.)
Love & Mercy was an unconventional look at two crucial periods in Brian Wilson’s life, with Brian Wilson played by Paul Dano and John Cusack, a bizarre choice on the face of it: they look nothing alike, they don’t even have the same essences as actors – but in the context of the film, and its non-realistic and poetic emotional landscape – it worked. It was about the art and it was about the psychology. That was what it cared about, not “and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened.” The biopic structure is so seemingly set in stone that it’s refreshing when a film decides “Nope. Not gonna do that.” (Another pet peeve is the focus on salacious details, drug addiction, the horrible side of fame, the bad behavior. Boy do biopics like to revel in that stuff. Yes, all of these things may be true. But do they illuminate anything about the MUSIC of the genius at the heart of the film? Do they let us know (or even care) WHY this person was so important that they deserve a biopic in the first place? (I have bitched about this before, in terms of biographies, especially in this piece about Peter Manso’s vicious biography of Marlon Brando.) There’s been a bit of controversy about Dr. Dre immediately following the release of Straight Outta Compton, due to his “misogny” and past mistreatment of women – but honestly … well. The controversy got an eyeroll from yours truly – and I thought Dre’s apology was heartfelt and sincere. We saw enough in the film to know these guys were partying hard and exploring the boundaries of promiscuity like all rock stars have done before them, with women mostly irrelevant except as crowds of barely-clad available sex partners… but there were far more important things going on with NWA than their personal foibles as men or boyfriends or husbands. Maybe it would have been interesting to show Dre’s early history of assaults. Who knows.Dr. Dre is a pioneer, and one of the most important figures in music in the last 30 years. His personal flaws were plenty in evidence in the film, as it was, but what matters in the story is his music, his producing, and his thought-process, how he thought about music. That’s what I care about anyway.)
Straight Outta Compton, directed by F. Gary Gray, and produced, in part, by NWA member Ice Cube (whose son, O’Shea Jackson Jr. plays his dad in the film – spitting image!), has all of the trappings of the typical biopic (origin story, growing fame, rock-star acting out, controversy, etc.) but brings to the table more anger, more heart, and an intense understanding of why it was that NWA struck such a nerve (and why they still matter – maybe even more now). If NWA had come along earlier, it might not have gone down the way it did. They may have stayed in their corner of Compton, putting out little records on little labels, and wouldn’t have become superstars. The time was right. The connection of men was right. The zeitgeist was right (something the film really gets, and represents in just one or two scenes. Eazy-E bailing Dre out of jail, asking him: “So why’d they arrest you?” Dre: “I was just standing there. Literally. I was just standing there.”) If the Rodney King beating hadn’t happened in the middle of their heyday, (basically proving that their most controversial song was not “inciting” or “dangerous” – it was just a bunch of guys explaining what they saw when they looked out the window, and what they experienced in their own neighborhoods – or, as Ice Cube said in an interview, “That song is a warning“), perhaps they wouldn’t have become such a cultural flashpoint, argued about in the highest halls of power in our nation. Who knows. But the fact remains that it did happen and NWA changed everything. And the proof is in the fact that all of those guys (except, sadly, Eazy-E, of course) are still around, superstars, moguls, producers, Renaissance men. These guys meant business.
In telling the origin story (and further on, but it’s set up from the get-go), the film does not sacrifice the most important element, the thing that holds it together: why these guys were friends, their dynamic as a group. God, it’s great. Each man is so distinctive (and I’ll rave about the casting in a second), and you can tell how the group operates. There’s such a sense of camaraderie – not just in the early scenes, but it’s most apparent there because later on, conflict arises and they all (famously) go their separate ways. But there’s such humor and listening and goofing off between all of them, open arguments about who does what and they work stuff out, and a give-and-take – none of it seems forced. This cast!! There’s a great scene that takes place after Ice Cube left NWA and came out with a solo album, with a song (“Vaseline”) dissing everyone in NWA, calling people out by name. The remaining members of NWA sit around listening to it, and there are some girlfriends there too, and everyone is rocking their head to the beat (almost against their will), and bursting out laughing when their name comes up, even if it’s in a mean context. Is it a betrayal to say, “Uhm … yeah, that’s a good song. I liked it.”? They all can’t help it. It’s good. Then, of course, the situation changes, and people get pissed and NWA decides to retaliate, with their own dis song. But that first reaction is where the glue of the film is, why it all works so well. It’s human. The biopic can be so strict in its linear story-telling, in its emotional thru-line that humanity and subtlety and nuance sometimes is wiped out. Everything becomes black-and-white. Not so here. These people are connected. They all grew up in the same block. They’ve known each other forever. Of course there’d be some humor and appreciation of what Ice Cube created, even if he’s rocking the insults. They know the score.
The casting is superb. When we first see each character, we get a little credit beside them, so we can locate who is who, but honestly, even without those credit lines we would know. Corey Hawkins (so excellent as Dr. Dre) looks a little bit like Dr. Dre, the high cheekbones, small eyes, the wide planes of his face. He’s enough like Dre that you accept it immediately. He also has the same sense of absorbed gravitas that Dre brings to the table. He’s a man being treated like a boy by the culture and he’s had it. Jason Mitchell, too, as the wiry energetic Eazy-E, the crazy curls jutting out from underneath the baseball cap, as well as the hyperkinetic intelligent essence. Jason Mitchell doesn’t have a lot of credits to his name, and while Straight Outta Compton is a true ensemble drama, he has one of the most challenging roles in the film, the guy with the most going on in a lot of respects, and Mitchell is extraordinary. Eazy-E was the one who financed NWA’s first record, with the massive amounts of money he made as a drug dealer. Eazy-E was the one who found them a manager, the controversial Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti – who also played Brian Wilson’s agent in Love & Mercy). Eazy-E didn’t seem to see himself as a rapper in the beginning, but once he got into the booth, at Dre’s encouragement, he went nuts. He was brilliant. It’s subtle, but that scene makes you understand why Dre is a brilliant producer. He senses things in the person in front of him that even the person doesn’t know is there.
I mean, remember that famous line from Eminem’s “White America,” the first song on The Eminem Show, an album that busted him through to the next level of fame/notoriety/omnipresence/legend-icon-villain status:
And kids flipped when they knew I was produced by Dre
That’s all it took.
“That’s all it took.” says Eminem, one of the biggest stars in the world. Eminem always gives Dr. Dre the props, for seeing his talent, ignoring his skin color as irrelevant, and investing in him. Dre’s involvement was a message to the black rap fans: “This white guy is cool.” The two of them are both rigid tireless perfectionists, who would rather make music than … live life outside the booth, basically. But that line from Eminem speaks to Dre’s power, his influence, how meaningful his involvement in any project. This is not news, obviously, and Straight Outta Compton starts out 10 years before Eminem came around, but in the scene when Eazy-E gets into the booth and Dre works with him, you understand HOW and WHY this became the case. Dre helped other people realize their potential, be bold, go for it, but make sure you do it all on the damn beat.
Eazy-E was separated from the rest of the group due to his loyalty to Jerry Heller, and the money issue (the money is a huge plot-point in the film). And then, of course, his death from AIDS. That’s a lot. Jason Mitchell is extraordinary navigating all of this. A beautiful character: smart, scared, righteous, fun, funny. You can see why his death would bring everyone together again, because he was so essential. O’Shea Jackson Jr., as mentioned before, is Ice Cube’s son, and doesn’t have to work hard to get his father’s mannerisms or voice tones down: he already has them. What an honor, right? To play your famous dad? But also what a challenge. It could be daunting, it could be setting yourself up to fail. He’s excellent. Ice Cube knew that something was not right with the money, he knew they were being stiffed somehow, but he looked at contracts and didn’t understand what they were saying. This is such a common problem with young stars who suddenly make a lot of money. People who barely have a high school education are suddenly millionaires and have to trust other people to manage their money, and how often does that go totally south? But Ice Cube knows something is “off.” He can smell it. It’s due to that conflict that he leaves (but not before smashing up label exec’s office with a baseball bat. Great scene.) In this particular thru-line of the film, knowing Ice Cube’s eventual career (movies, writing, music), you can see that this guy is going to learn everything he has to learn about the business side of things so that he will not be beholden to anyone else ever again.
And then there’s Dre. DJ-ing, trying to take care of his girl and his baby, but they’re all crashing at his aunt’s house, and everyone is getting pissed off and impatient. Dre is the focal point, or … more like the fulcrum of a wheel. The other people gravitate towards him, and then circle around him. This is true as well of Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor, in a chilling performance), who steps in later, sets up Death Row Records, and runs it like a criminal operation, complete with barking vicious dogs and sketchy characters who beat people to a pulp in order to get what they want. It’s a terrifying “scene” and you can start to feel the East Coast/West Coast rap war building. Dre gets sucked in, and then finally extricates himself, setting up his own label, Aftermath. All of these things made headlines, but Straight Outta Compton invests in the details, the small details that make a “scene” seem real, that make us understand what was going on, the vibe, the motivations, the needs of all of the parties involved.
More great casting: Keith Stanfield (so wonderful in Short Term 12, and heartbreaking in his small role in Selma – I met him at Ebertfest when they played Short Term 12) walks into the studio later in the film, a new face, and his mannerisms, his voice, his attitude, his entire ESSENCE, just screams “Snoop Dogg.” I saw it with a huge audience and the second he showed up I felt the rustle of recognition around me. Amazing. The same is true with Marcc Rose, who is only seen once or twice, through the glass in the booth, starting to record, Dre focused on him, and my God, that’s 2Pac Shakur. He was so beautiful, had that glamorous look to him, the huge blinding smile, the open vibe. This was at the height of the Death Row Records situation, with barking attack dogs down the hall, and Suge Knight looming over everything in his strong-arm capacity. That one scene, with 2Pac in the studio working with Dre, and Suge Knight having a raging (horrible) party down the hallway involving torture and humiliation, told us everything. This shit was going to get ugly. And we all know it did.
Straight Outta Compton gets the little details right, the interactions, the various friendships, the arguments about money, the nuts-and-bolts of behavior, eloquent and unselfconscious, that is part of the reason I love movies. But it also gets the social and political aspect, something that demands to be addressed with a group like NWA, who got warning letters from the FBI about “Fuck Tha Police”. The FBI. They were told not to perform the song during a concert in Detroit, a warning that they (famously) ignored. A riot broke out. Cops swarmed the stage. The audience flooded out into the street, shouting “Fuck Tha Police!” It was unbelievable, and reminiscent of the nationwide controversy involving Elvis, the riots at his shows, the protests, the smashing of his albums by PTA groups and outraged DJs, the warning from police in Florida that he NOT MOVE during his concert, or else they would arrest him afterwards. Elvis obeyed, and yet rebelled by wiggling his little finger during his performance, and sexual frenzied riots broke out because of THAT. (The concert scenes in Straight Outta Compton, in general, are superb. They film a lot of it from the stage-side, looking out at the audience, so you can see the masses of people, black and white, jumping up and down, middle fingers raised. The cops glowering on the sidelines.) That song brought them national headlines, and there are news clips of poor white Tom Brokaw, trying to describe what was happening, and I like Tom Brokaw but boy he comes off as patriarchal and scold-y. This has happened with rap from the beginning, but it was the innovation of “gangsta rap” that got the white folks nervous. These guys, like NWA and Public Enemy, were saying shit that nobody wanted to hear in mainstream America. Rodney King made it palpable to the rest of us. Anyone who saw that beating video (and we all saw it) and thought that Rodney King “had it coming” is not just part of the problem, they ARE the problem, a problem still alive today. Ice Cube joked at one point that the big yellow warning stickers put on their records helped them make their millions. Kids are gonna check out anything the grown-ups say is “bad” for them. And, as always, the audience was “in on the joke.” White kids, black kids … they may have responded to those raging songs in different ways, but they all know the difference between Art and Reality. Or that art expresses reality, art is personal, art comes out of a personal landscape, and these guys were personal. They were not created by a label. They were not following a trend. They WERE the trend. You cannot “create” something authentic like that. It has to emerge on its own, and Straight Outta Compton, showing the police presence on the streets of Compton, with cops completely over-stepping their bounds, flat out harassing any group of black men who dared to stand together on a corner shooting the shit, shows the landscape from which these guys emerged, and does so in a visceral way. You can’t harass an entire population like that and then be SURPRISED when they’re pissed off.
So I’ve talked a lot, right? Clearly I loved the movie. It’s beautifully put together, it focuses on character and friendship, the ties that bind, it also focuses on money and business, the way young artists can be taken advantage of, especially when they rely on others to take care of things. These guys learned shit the hard way. It shows why and when the breaks between them happened, but it also shows that throughout it all, they were doing things FOR each other. Maybe the feud got tiresome to those watching. Maybe everyone wanted NWA to bury the hatchet and fucking get back together already. Everything that happened happened because these guys were connected. The river runs deep with all of them. Dr. Dre’s sweet younger brother was killed, and it’s horrible. I loved the scene between Dre and his brother where they talk on the phone while NWA is on tour. The brother is young, he’s in high school, he wants to join his brother on tour, he begs to be allowed to come with. Dre counsels him to hang in there, keep going to school, he can join him in a bit. Before they hang up, Dre says, “And make sure you always use a condom.” The brother says, “Yeah, I still have that pack of condoms you gave me!” Like, 2 years ago? It was adorable, the audience burst out laughing. These are very important scenes, not only story-wise, but to show the bond between the men in the group. Eazy-E’s illness, heartbreakingly portrayed by Mitchell (Eazy-E has no idea why he’s so sick, he assumes and his wife assumes that it’s a respiratory infection) … mortality is serious, and these guys lived with it every day on the streets of Compton, the threat all around them, and maybe none of them expected they’d make it to adulthood anyway. But when people close to them actually die, the mourning is intense, wordless, devastating.
Straight Outta Compton is affectionate, that’s for sure, but it’s also important. It understands what these guys meant, what they still mean. It’s a snapshot of a moment in time when America was fracturing openly, trying to understand itself, trying to hold off the forces of chaos and being unable to do so. Marginalized voices were taking over the airwaves. NWA was the voice of that political and social chaos, the voice of the oppressed who decided they could not, would not, take it anymore. And what better way to spread that message than through art? The montage-clips that roll during the final credits are pure celebration of their accomplishments since then. It was incredibly moving.
NWA were First Amendment champions. Ice Cube was asked about his controversial lyrics in some interview and he said, frankly, “This is rock ‘n’ roll.” Like … put it in the right context, people. Since when has rock ‘n’ roll been “nice?” The best rock ‘n’ roll rocks the boat, upsets the apple cart, speaks the truth, changes the world.
NWA weren’t prophets so much as they were truth-telling reporters. Like Thomas Paine in 1775 waving his inflammatory pamphlets around on the streets of Philadelphia and igniting a revolution, the match to the flame. NWA ignited something. Something that continues to burn today.