I’m not always 100 percent behind modern musical biopics. I’m not opposed to them, and there are a couple really good ones, but the problem is that they’re usually made by fans, and involving or at least with cooperation from, the musicians themselves or their families if they’re deceased. This usually puts a hard limit on how much the movie can explore the darker aspects of the musician’s story, which also puts a hard limit on how interesting the story can be.
Still, there can be a lot of good reasons to, especially when the musicians the biopic is devoted were very important to the cultural or musical zeitgeist in their day, as a way of examining their time in the spotlight. And while their influence has been somewhat forgotten in modern times, few artists could claim to have been as influential in their day as the members of NWA.
The plot should be pretty familiar to anyone who knows the backstory of NWA. The story follows a pair of amateur rappers nicknamed Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson) and Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins). Dre is a DJ and aspiring producer, while Ice Cube has begun writing what he calls ‘Real Raps,’ rap songs about real issues facing them in the crime ridden city of Compton.
While working as a DJ in a club still interested in 80s R&B, Dre and Cube suggest to a friend of theirs nicknamed Eazy-E, who is looking to get out of the drug game, that he use some of his money to bankroll their music. He does and their album, Straight Outta Compton is a huge hit. And well, you know how most musical biopics go from there.
Straight Outta Compton is a movie of ups and downs in quality, but it definitely opens pretty strong. The movie is extremely good, both at the beginning and throughout the entirety of it, at setting the scene and giving us a sense of what life was like in Compton in the late 80s. Beginning with a drug bust involving a tank and continuing on through a scene so absurd it has to be based on a real incident (where a Blood breaks into a school bus to warn the kids against flashing gang signs), the opening of the film is easily where it’s at its strongest.
The rest of the movie is like that as well, in that it’s at its best when its its showing us why NWA were such a big deal and why they were relevant. Some of the biggest standout moments in the film are scenes depicting the group getting arrested for playing their signature song, F**k the Police, or restaged moments from the riots following the Rodney King verdict, where said song’s title was spraypainted on the walls. Those are the moments where Straight Outta Compton comes the most alive, and its a bit of a shame that the movie doesn’t contain more of them.
The rest of the movie isn’t up to that standard. It’s never quite bad, I’m just always keenly aware of its faults. The first and biggest issue, as odd as it sounds, is how egalitarian it is. The movie is eager to treat all 3 of the biggest members of the group equally, due I suspect, to the movie being caught between respect for the late Eazy-E and having both Cube and Dre serving as producers, and I’m not certain that was the best approach.
All three of them have to go through their own arcs, including villains, struggles, emotional moments and triumphs, and the movie winds up more than a little overstuffed, even at nearly 2 and a half hours, as a result. I feel that focusing on one or at most two members of the group might have been better, relegating the other members to at best a B-Story, which at least might have been fairer to NWA’s perennial Ringo and Pete Best, DJ Yella and MC Ren who are barely in the movie.
The other issues are pretty standard for musical biopics; inconsistent acting ability, attempts to ignore the less savory aspects of the musician’s histories, unnecessary fanservice and weird structure. The acting is probably the most blatant, as it’s present throughout the entirety of the film. Put simply, O’Shea Jackson is incredibly bland as Ice Cube, which is weird since he’s playing his own father, so you’d think he’d have picked up some of his charisma.
The other major actors are all quite good though, and they more than make up for O’Shea’s failings. Corey Hawkins is fine as Dre, although the movie isn’t 100 percent sure what to do with him, and his arc goes in and out of focus throughout the film. Jason Mitchell’s performance is a little rough around the edges, but he goes all out come the third act and he winds up being, in my opinion, the standout. Honorary supporting mention goes to Paul Giamatti as the morally corrupt Manager (Paul Giamatti is good in everything).
The fanservice issue…I can take or leave. Tupac and Snoop Dogg showing up I can accept, but the movie makes such a big deal out of them being there that its distracting (I’m very surprised the movie avoided referencing 50 Cent or Eminem at the very end). Similarly, I am genuinely annoyed how the movie refuses to address, or even acknowledge the fact that Dr. Dre is…well there’s no way around it, a serial abuser. There are a lot of ways it could have been framed (the one that occurred to me is juxtaposing it as part of the same macho culture that would, tangentially, claim Eazy-E) but refusing to even mention it seems more than a little like a cop out.
However, if you’re about to take away from this review that you shouldn’t go see this movie, that is the wrong impression I want you to get. It’s well directed, mostly well written and solidly acted. Straight Outta Compton is absolutely worth your time, and with Mad Max and Dope out of theaters, there’s not much better that’s out right now. I’m just frustrated, because I see so much potential that’s not getting used. With a little more polish, this movie could have been an offbeat Oscar contender. Instead, it’s merely an above average biopic. But for this summer, hell most summers come August, that’s more than enough.
Elessar is a 25 year old Alaskan born cinephile and if Dr. Dre wants to conquer the world, he has to release an album more than once every 16 years.
– mostly good acting
– good writing
– very good direction, especially in the historical scenes
– O’Shea Jackson is pretty bad
– a little overlong
– clearly refusing to address the more uncomfortable aspects of the character’s backstory