By James Hancock August 14th, 2015
No matter your age, background or taste in music, it is tough to resist the allure of Straight Outta Compton, director F. Gary Gray’s chronicle of the rise of N.W.A and what followed when the members of the group inevitably went their separate ways. As a musical biopic, the film is at its strongest when exploring the origins of the central characters Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E and how their music held up a mirror to the environment in which they were struggling to survive. I saw the movie in a crowded theater that was clearly enjoying an intense sentimental journey with many audience members waving their hands and singing along with tunes they recognized. As the story lines of the characters weave in and out from one another, the film tackles a variety of issues from freedom of speech to police harassment, but what I found most interesting was the story of Dr. Dre, an artist and entrepreneur with the talent and ambition to bring seismic changes to the music industry. Unfortunately, the movie runs out of steam as the plot shifts away from freedom of expression and chooses to focus more on the price of celebrity and the corruption of the music industry. Even at a 2 1/2 hour running time, the film often feels like it is sprinting through years of pivotal events in the characters’ lives resulting in a story structure that feels more like a survey of the southern California rap scene of late 80s/early 90s rather than a deep dive. Given the scope and ambition of the project, an entire season on HBO probably would have been a better fit. That said, I had an absolute blast watching the movie. If you need any additional incentive to check out the film, the original music video to N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton might give you the extra push you need:
I grew up in the predominantly white suburbs of Virginia and North Carolina and I’m just old enough to remember the disproportionate amount of media coverage in the late 80s/early 90s devoted to the emergence of what was being called gangsta rap. For several years straight, it seemed as if aging white people on television were living in abject terror of a type of music that was obviously from today’s perspective a form of non-violent protest. What Straight Outta Compton does really well is put the audience in the shoes of characters who are being abused and harassed by the police seemingly on a daily basis all while trying to do something creative that would allow them an escape from the life of crime they are wrongfully suspected of embracing (although to be fair, Eazy-E used drug money to finance his first record). I imagine a lot of kids will identify with this movie and will hopefully be inspired by the trials and tribulations endured by the characters. As Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E explode in popularity, outside forces wedge their way in between them turning the movie into an effective cautionary tale about the double-edged sword of success in the music business. While today Dr. Dre might be more famous for selling Beats to Apple for $3 billion, he learned his business acumen the hard way getting taken advantage of by corrupt managers like Jerry Heller first and later Suge Knight. If not for his overwhelming passion for creating music at the exclusion of all other concerns, Dre could have just as easily ended up like Eazy-E, who died from AIDS shortly before a possible N.W.A reunion. In spite of some of the usual shortcomings associated with making rags to riches biopics, Dre’s drive and contagious enthusiasm for his work as depicted in this movie are an inspiration for anyone with larger-than-life dreams. As I wrote earlier, you don’t have to be a fan of rap or hip-hop to get into this movie. I didn’t embrace this music until many years after its initial release, but the movie has an infectious power that will most likely have you downloading the albums Straight Outta Compton, The Chronic and more as soon as you leave the theater. If you’re planning on hitting the movie theater this weekend, this is definitely the movie to see.
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