It never fails to amaze me how all musicians’ biopics eventually turn into the same movie. Once they get past the specifics of where and when their particular stars burst into success, and the exciting early flashes of creativity and fame, it’s always contract disputes, fights over attribution and compensation, battles with drugs and/or disease, struggles with jealousies and egos, and finally a reckoning with past mistakes that somehow cements the subjects’ place in pop culture history. It’s one of the movies' most predictable formulas, a cross-promotional opportunity in the form of music business mythologizing. That a wide swath of industry legends, varied in time, place, genre, and character, can be reduced and inflated to weirdly similar tropes is more than a bit tiresome. And yet, the form holds steady and even occasionally jolts to life because 1.) when it works it works, and 2.) it’s so often true.
Take Straight Outta Compton for example, an up-tempo and glossy reenactment of the rise of gangsta rap on the West Coast in the late-80s and early-90s. It blasts to life with capable and exciting rising action, charting the success and decline of the groundbreaking hip-hop group N.W.A. with energy. The guys in the group came of age in Compton neighborhoods rife with poverty, feuding gangs, and constant police brutality. They turned the frustrations and pleasures of their daily lives into raunchy rhymes set to catchy beats, telling the truth of their experience in a way that spoke to others like them, and to a mainstream eager to eat up that authenticity. It’s a common trope for movies like this to say that the music in question was unlike anything heard before. But here we not only see how tremendously exciting N.W.A.’s music was, we get a sense of the times to which it was perfectly positioned to speak.
The screenplay (by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, with story credits for S. Leigh Savidge and Alan Wenkus) starts strong, digging into the group’s origin story. We first meet the ambitious young men, Ice Cube (played by his son, O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Dj Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and The D.O.C. (Marlon Yates Jr.), in confrontations with cops who roll up threateningly. In our current climate of police brutality and racist practices, scenes of beatings, intimidations, and incarcerations are all the more electric. The movie opens on a raid, a militarized vehicle blasting open a drug house, the battering ram slamming into one of the occupants as Eazy-E, a low-level dealer, flees. Later, we see Cube, a sensitive poet, menaced by police, and Dre, an aspiring DJ, locked up for little more than throwing a single punch. Soon, they’re putting their creative energies together to cut a record, turbulent social energies feeding their expression.
These early scenes are the best, painting a vivid portrait of life in Compton as a group of charismatic young people hangs on the precipice of stardom. Soon, they’ve met a sleazy manager (Paul Giamatti) who promises riches. They record an album – 1988’s Straight Outta Compton, featuring hits like the galvanic “Fuck tha Police” – and head out on a whirlwind cross-country tour. Huge crowds flock to their concerts, while their music scares pearl-clutching pundits. It comes to a head in a terrific scene set in Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena where a crowd of white cops backstage warns N.W.A. not to play a certain song. Bet you can guess which one. They perform it, of course, and the crowd erupts. So do the cops.
For a while, director F. Gary Gray puts a little extra energy in this based-on-a-true-story form. Maybe it helps that he would’ve been around for some of it, what with his directorial debut being an Ice Cube video in 1993. He’s best known for low comedy (Friday) and slick thrillers (The Negotiator), and here plays to his strengths. With cinematographer Matthew Libatique, the look is sparkling and smooth. He makes scenes of hotel room parties and backstage antics sing with rambling raunchy camaraderie, while clashes with authority figures have a tense edge. There are plenty of interesting moments, compellingly acted, as the guys struggle to reconcile their individual priorities with the group’s dynamics. Cube goes solo, setting off a volley of diss tracks. Dre meets Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor), who is presented in a largely villainous light as he lures him into a new business partnership.
But in moving from their initial high-flying fame to the daily grind of managing relationships with business, the movie loses energy and novelty. Gray and his collaborators embalm recent history for preservation and praise, but not much in the way of narrative or cultural context. After the group hits big then falls apart, the movie becomes less a story and more a selection of biographical details, a collection of scenes in which characters and songs practically step out and get their own annotated introduction. For instance: “Who’s this guy?” one character will say, pointing at a new face. “That’s Snoop,” comes the answer, as Keith Stanfield steps in to play him for a scene and a half, rapping a few recognizable bars. How often can we watch scenes weighted with hindsight, nudging and winking at us to recognize famous lyrics, names, interviews, and catchphrases (“Bye, Felicia” shows up in an awfully belabored sequence)?
The movie starts strong and loses energy the more it becomes a predictable recitation of familiar biopic beats. Instead of digging into the lives of these men as characters, a rough and energized truth is sanded down to fit a commodified varnished version, comfortable and corporate. (Over the end credits, we practically get an ad for Beats by Dre.) Here’s a movie that lives moment by moment in an energetic novel space – the first sprawling rap history period piece – and adds up to a whole lot of unfocused familiar motions, reducing complicated real people into shiny pop symbols.