Like only a very few, select musical acts, the hip-hop group N.W.A. burned very brightly and for a very short time. They created a single masterpiece, the album Straight Outta Compton (1988), and henceforth changed the way things were said and done. Dr. Dre created beats that were more than the simple two-four snaps used by Run-DMC, LL Cool J, and the Beastie Boys; they were musical. The title song has a tumbling quality, with a single syllable dangling off the edge of every line. It feels like a frantic chase. Then there’s “F–k tha Police,” a song that scared everyone when it was first spun. When was the last time music was truly frightening?
A group like this deserves a powerful movie, and the one they got, F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton, is almost, but not totally, there. Part of the problem is that Dr. Dre and Ice Cube went on to successful careers after the demise of N.W.A., and so much of that is worth telling; it’s as if these guys alone represent about 50% of hip-hop history. Gray was there for some of it, in the 1990s. He made music videos for both Dre and Cube, including Cube’s seminal “It Was a Good Day.” He made his feature directing debut on the cult classic Friday (1995), based on Cube’s original screenplay. So he’s definitely the man for this job, but perhaps he was too close? Maybe he felt like he owed it to all the players to give them all equal time, and follow all the storylines to the furthest possible point.
In any case, it feels as if no one quite knew how or where to stop the movie. In fact, considering the last scene, it could have gone on even longer, all the way up to Dre’s work with Eminem and 50 Cent and Cube’s role in the 21 Jump Street movies. (It could have been a pretty good mini-series.) At least the starting point is easily agreed upon. Eric ‘Eazy-E’ Wright (Jason Mitchell) is dealing drugs in the Southern California city of Compton, and in an exciting pre-credits sequence, he is nearly caught when a police battering ram smashes down a house. Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) earns a few pennies spinning records at clubs, and already has a child to support. Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr., Cube’s real-life son) rides the school bus home, scrawling rhymes in his notebook, and has a run-in with a violent street thug. These three, along with friends DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), decide to give the music business a try.
With Dre’s beats, Cube’s lyrics, and Eric’s thin, high vocalization, their first try results in a classic, “Boyz-N-the-Hood.” It becomes a local hit and attracts the attention of a gone-to-seed music manager, Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). Sporting a Grand Fulk Railroad poster behind his desk and claiming that he has “worked with Styx,” he nonetheless promises to take care of Eric. A few shows later, a label is found and the album is released. A huge tour follows, and the FBI begins to take notice of the group, issuing a warning over the performing of “F–k tha Police.” A show in Detroit at which the N.W.A. perform the forbidden song leads to a riot.
Also on tour, we get the kind of thing that is in virtually every music biopic. The group members begin to indulge in lots of drinking, some drugs, many women. At the same time, Cube becomes concerned about contracts and money, and the bickering starts. Cube leaves the group, records his equally groundbreaking solo album AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted (1990), and continues to feud about money. Later he is shown writing the Friday screenplay. Dre forms Death Row records with the volatile, sinister Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor), meets Snoop Dogg (Keith Stanfield), and records his own groundbreaker, The Chronic (1992). Later, he must break away from Suge, but not before we get a quick scene of Tupac Shakur (Marcc Rose) grooving to the raw “California Love” track.
Meanwhile, Eric stays with Jerry and tries to make his own struggling record label, Ruthless, work with less-than-groundbreaking Eazy-E and MC Ren solo albums. He dreams of getting N.W.A. back together, but he begins to show signs of “movie cough,” which means that he’s dying. The movie can’t stop there, so it includes a long, weepy hospital sequence that seems rather out of place in a hardcore hip-hop movie. (Where’s Meryl Streep when you need her?) Fans still love Eazy-E, and I’m sure this was all meant as honorably as possible, but I think I would have been fine with a “where are they now” title card that explained his losing battle with AIDS, and the heroic way he tried to educate his fans toward the end.
I can think of two other movies about bands whose time on this earth was short but whose influence is long. Alex Cox’s great Sid & Nancy (1986) somehow boiled the story of the Sex Pistols and then Sid Vicious’s relationship with Nancy Spungen down to a punchy, funny 112 minutes. Anton Corbijn’s imperfect Control (2007) told the story of Joy Division and suicidal singer Ian Curtis in 122 minutes, but the black-and-white cinematography and the vivid live performances sold it. Straight Outta Compton runs 147 minutes and it just seems to stop rather than end. And the energy has gone right out of it. During the last hour, it’s mainly a collection of cultural and historical highlights rather than storytelling.
But I still like Straight Outta Compton for the smaller powerhouse movie that exists within the larger, lumbering one. It may be more myth-making than actual fact, but the moments of N.W.A. channeling their experiences into their music, both in the studio and in the live shows, are ferocious and thrilling. In one early scene, they play “Dopeman” in front of a small, local crowd, and it’s electrifying. After the show, the group members are giddy from the success of the show. Dre was afraid his needles would jump right off the records, and Cube couldn’t believe that the crowd knew the words to the song. A record executive tentatively approaches and says it’s the greatest thing he’s ever seen. And, in that moment, we believe him.