Biopics aren’t really independent works of art. They’re inherently revisionist in nature, in that the constraints of scriptwriting and running time and the pressure to produce something with commercial appeal distort complex, nuanced individuals and events into the visual equivalent of a Wikipedia entry. Perhaps this is nowhere more true than in the musical biopic, so often reduced to the formulaic ‘struggle to breakthrough/create and perform hits/struggle with terrible problem (addiction/mental illness/relationship)/end with tragic death or tidy but false resolution’ narrative arc.
In that sense, Staight Outta Compton is your average formulaic biopic, albeit split between the three key members of pioneering rap group N.W.A: Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy E. And let me be clear, the involvement of both of the surviving members in this project, as well as the personal connection director F. Gary Grey has to these men (Grey directed Cube’s iconic video for ‘It Was A Good Day’ and his first film was the cult comedy ‘Friday’, which was written by and starred Ice Cube) made it clear that we weren’t going to receive an objective documentary about the pivotal events of the group’s meteoric rise and vicious collapse. This is not the space to debate the merits of biopics and the versions of history they portray, and there are many great pieces released in recent week debating the film and the lack of acknowledgement of its subjects’ incidents of violence against women. I encourage you to read those discussions. Ultimately, all I can do is assess in these few hundred words how it worked as a film.
The answer to that question is: pretty well. The script is razor wire tight with energy and movement, cramming an impressive amount of character development and progression through the years into its 150 minutes without ever losing momentum. The casting is perfect: I had severe scepticism going in about the casting of O’Shea Jackson, Jr. as his father, but he creates an authentic performance as a young Ice Cube helped a great deal by his hereditary facial scowls and sneers. Corey Hawkins gets Dre’s obsessive mentality and emotional progression correct, whilst not becoming a mere caricature of musical genius. Paul Giamatti nails manager Jerry Heller’s sliminess but elevates the character beyond a mere antagonist. But special mention must be made of Jason Mitchell, who is a tour de force as Eazy, creating a nuanced and complex character that comes across so real and magnetic that he rises to become the emotional heart and soul of this film.
The film’s portrayal of police harassment and the African American experience in late 80s/early 90s Los Angeles are not overdone, and these scenes, in particular those centring on the reaction to Rodney King trial, will ring eerily current for today’s audiences. In this sense, clunky fan service studio scenes with Snoop Dogg or Tupac don’t break from the key message of the film: conveying the environment from which these young men and a generation of new and vital music came from. Grey deserves credit for creating a film that feels both satisfying and relevant to both hardcore fans and the casually interested. Ultimately, this was about as good a result as you could have hoped for from this project. Parental Discretion Iz Advised.
Review by Wade McCagh