The winners write the history books and so it is on “Straight Outta Compton”, a terrific biopic about Dr. Dre, Eazy E, and Ice Cube, as well as DJ Yella and DJ Ren, who raised from the suburban Cali Ghetto of Compton, to invent Gangsta rap and kickstart the East Coast – West Coast wars of the late 1980s.
It is the story of five extremely violent teens, not just former drug pusher Eazy E, who wanted to perform reality rap, based upon the gangbanging, police harassing streets of Compton, hooked up with a white Jewish manager Jerry Heller, and rode a year of success before it fell apart when Heller and Eazy E got a little too greedy with their Ruthless Records label, and Ice Cube bolted. By the end, Dre and his new partner on Death Row Records, the psychotic Suge Knight, tortured Eazy E and when that didn’t work, kidnapped Heller and when THAT didn’t work, kidnapped Eazy E’s Mom… that worked and Dre was released from his Ruthless Records contract. “Straight Outta Compton” the movie, directed by Ice Cube buddy (and “Friday” director) F. Gary Gray, can’t tell that story because it would have killed the almost happy ending, so instead it added a fiction where Jimmy Iovine got Dre out of his contract in return for letting Interscope distribute The Chronic.
But like I said, to the winners the spoils, so since everybody produced, everybody is a hero. So if you can get past it being less than 100% reality, “Straight Outta Compton” is one of the best musical pics out there. After all, remember “The Song of My Heart” (Tchaikovsky as a lady’s man), that’s the way it goes and this vision of N.W.A. is a thrilling 147 minute ride to the top of the charts before it all explodes for one of the most influential and popular rap bands off all time: Niggaz With Attitudes. It is the rap Sex Pistols story with police stopping performances and threatening letters from the FBI.
The three leads all provide star making turns. Corey Hawkins as Dre (remember him as “Navy Ops” in “Ironman 3”? Exactly) gives a quiet, intense and very concentrated performance, he makes Dre something Dre actually is, a musical hero. From his first shot, listening to vinyl on headphones before getting kicked out by his Mom, Dre is about one thing: sounds. And I believe that, you don’t pick out Snoop Dogg’s demo out of 1000s without completely getting it. Personally, I am not a huge N.W.A. fan, but the beats all over their albums? That’s mostly Dre and always great.
Ice Cube has always been too angry to be charismatic so here it is his intensity that comes right through. Acted by one O’Shea Jackson (aka Ice Cube’s son), this is not the nepotism you might think it is, the similarities between son and father are scary. The third of the trio who rule the movie is Eazy E -the former hood who financed their first recordings and took over as one of the rappers. Jason Mitchell is impish and scary. Eazy E was a hugely charismatic performer who died of AIDs at the age of 31 and he is the central figure here (partially, one assumes, because his widow owns the NWA catalog and needed to sign off -no “Fuck Tha Police”, no movie).
Kudos to the always excellent Paul Giamatti as Heller. He couldn’t be better and he makes certain to make you wonder where the truth in the accusations against him truly are.
If much of “Straight Outta Compton” is standard issue biopic, much of it isn’t. This is an intense and thrilling ride into the charts, with police trying to close down their shows, Suge trying to kill anybody who crosses him, and the three friends falling apart till the end, when Dre leaves Death Row to form his own label (and discover Eminem) and Eazy E calling the band members with Dre and Ice Cube agreeing to reunite the group, before E falling sick with AIDs and dying six months later.
Legendary rock writer Bill Holdship recently wrote how he would love to own a Drive In and show a double feature of the Brian Wilson biopic “Love and Mercy” and “Straight Outta Compton”. It is a smart connection between the two 2015 Cali stories, which seem to have nothing in common except genius at the center. There is no way to overestimate Dr Dre’s contribution to popular music, and God only knows the same is true of Brian Wilson: the summer sun bakes the two mens soul and music emerges. Both are great movies but while “Love And Mercy” breaks it into two, “Straight Outta Compton” lies to make its point. If you believe that Eazy E reached out to Dre after he threatened to kill his Mom, you’re crazy.
Not that I care, I thoroughly enjoyed every damn second of it. Watching more than impressions of young Snoop, Jimmy Iovine, a terrific Tupac: it is just another layer of pleasure on a brilliant movie.
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