I don’t know anything about hip hop but I know this is special.
— Interscope Records rep.
Admittedly, rock and roll is my forte, though it might come as a surprise to many that I’ve done innumerable studio sessions with hip hop acts. Around 1992, I was tracking in a Hawthorne studio with rap group after rap group, and was witness to gangs/groups at street level who were badder, blacker, faster and a damn sight more uh, nigga than NWA, although it was universally agreed NWA were the pioneers that kicked down the doors. That makes me one of the best qualified barometers of this music industry-based movie on its face value. My other qualification: one night around 2am, driving home from a gig, my band and I got lost in Compton – and didn’t get killed.
As soon as we figured out the map… we got —
STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, a powerful black biopic, made for weak-kneed whites. The rise, dissolution and ongoing legacy of Niggaz wit’ Attitude.
First-time screenwriter Jonathan Herman and director F. Gary Gray (who directed Ice Cube in FRIDAY, 1995; his last movie, the mixed-message LAW ABIDING CITIZEN, 2009) have honed the group image down to five guys: three powerful personalities and two Ringos. There’s Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy E (firebrand Jason Mitchell), and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr., Cube’s real life son); then there’s MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), the Brad Whitford and Tom Hamilton of the band. (I imagine the filmmakers – which include Ice Cube and Dr. Dre as producers – would cite dramatic license in omitting the input of The D.O.C. and Arabian Prince, and I’m sure there are a lot of people pissed off about that – not least The D.O.C. and Arabian Prince.)
“You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge.” That spoken intro to the song Straight Outta Compton (from the 1988 album of the same name) opens and closes the film. What we are actually witnessing is the strength of corporate marketing. As dangerous as NWA were – labeled “The World’s Most Dangerous Band” – if this hard-nosed, principled group refused to play by The Man’s rulez, we’d never know them. The film’s logo looks like that because it is satirizing the Parental Advisory sticker – Straight Outta Compton was one of the first albums to adhere to that new sticker ruling by the PMRC. Now… how badass could NWA have been if their management acceded to placing that sticker? They could’ve stuck to their principles and said Fuck You, and cut the distribution of their album by 95%. They didn’t. And became superstars.
Sanitized, homogenized, Hollywoodized, COMPTON is yet kinetic and fearsome and made with hero-angle respect to the band that spearheaded the “gangsta rap” movement, but it takes many liberties and eventually feels structured to hit all those BEHIND THE MUSIC beats that cheapen its impact. Can any movie possibly cram so much cultural background into two and a half hours and still cover the storied life of the world-shaking band itself? So we get quick scenes of poverty-stricken housing, drug deals gone awry, police harassment, underlying repression and inhuman racism that fueled the nitro in these street kids’ glycerin.
We see the business relationship forged between Easy-E and manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti, in another fantastic performance), co-founding Ruthless Records. Though there were shady dealings (when are there NOT shady dealings in relation to management?) Heller and Eazy would shepherd NWA through their meteoric rise, both of them making grand theft income, while the other band members made peanuts in their shadows.
Despite the movie portraying Fuck Tha Police (their signature controversial middle finger to The Man) being written after being harassed by cops outside the studio, it was actually inspired by the nightmare stories of police harassment and brutality from the whole crew in general. We hear from Cube in outside interviews that they held off on recording it until Dre had closure on his parole situation. But dramatic license sees them recording it in three eyeblinks after they get back inside and have some coffee.
We see the 1989 Tour, the hedonistic pool parties, the nakedness and hos and police chasing Dre’s Lamborghini.
Ice Cube would quit before the second album, Niggaz4Life (1991), and we see his own meteoric rise to solo fame, in movies and records. Which would at one point involve taking a baseball bat to the record company’s office décor for cheating him of royalties.
Dre would be the next defection, forging Death Row Records with the imposing Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor); recording with a young Snoop (Keith Stanfield) and Tupac (who looks exactly like him, and probably is. How do you know he ain’t? You seen the body?…).
1991, Rodney King. 1992, LA riots. Moving with the cultural flashpoints of the era, the tale will follow the band members and their solo projects, until the HIV death of Eazy-E in 1995. After his admittedly startling amount of unregulated pussy, this guy either went very happy, or very tired…
Someone asks Eazy, “How do you go from selling rocks in the dope house, to eating dinner in the White House?”
Three ways to regard this movie.
1) Shallowly: a hip hop group’s pseudo-biopic.
2) A little deeper and more alarming: Isn’t there something wrong with a society that would make drug runners, thieves and felons rich, respected rock stars?
3) Or balls deep truth: Isn’t there something wrong with a society that would allow such hopeless living conditions for whole swathes of its population?; that would force these downtrodden communities to fight for survival by any means possible?; that those who fight for existence (through “the strength of street knowledge,” to keep themselves abreast of the poverty line) are regarded as dangerous criminals, even though it is the policies of the criminals in congress who create the social disparity that breeds survivalist crime in the first place?
And then wonder how such brutal music is created: “Our art is a reflection of our reality.” (Ice Cube).
The soundtrack is megalithic and very enjoyable, and will allow this movie to stand alongside the 1988 album as a landmark, whether hip hop is your bag or not, because the music is in context. Just as Philo Beddoe made country and western music bearable, so too COMPTON brings this weaponized street music to the masses. Onscreen, the studio sessions are inauthentic (as all studio sessions are portrayed in Hollywood movies), but the onstage performances are portrayed well. I don’t know whether these young guys dubbed their own voices or others did it for them, but the sync is skintight. And before I knew that young guy was Cube’s son, I was marveling at how he captured every gesture, every inflection of Cube… ah, no wonder!
Like every biopic, COMPTON is made with 20/20 hindsight, so characters say annoying things like, “I know what I wanna do with my life!”
I’ve said that all my life as well, and I’m still waiting for ten police cruisers to chase me down in my Lamborghini…