The following contains spoilers for Straight Outta Compton. You have been warned.
Erik: We’re talking about Straight Outta Compton, the biopic of a band I knew very little about who played music I’ve barely ever heard. That said, I felt like my prior knowledge was inconsequential, because this was a very good film. It got me (for two and a half hours, at least) to care about the music and the people who made it. Tyler, your thoughts and do you think your prior knowledge affected your enjoyment?
Tyler: As far as my prior knowledge, I was introduced to N.W.A through a VH1 Special which of course discussed “Straight Outta Compton” as a seminal album. Of course I knew a bit about Andre ‘Dr. Dre’ Young due to his behind the scene’s work with Snoop Dogg, Eminem and 50 Cent and O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson through his film work. That being said, I didn’t fully listen to the album till about five years ago. I enjoyed the movie quite a bit, I certainly had some problems with it especially with it following music biopic stereotypes to a “T” which I’m sure we will discuss.
Erik: I want to come back to these “music biopic stereotypes” but first, your general thoughts. What did you think of the actors? I was pretty impressed, because aside from Paul Giamatti, most of the actors have very few credits to their names – especially so with O’Shea Jackson, Jr. who was given the task of playing his own father, which I imagine would put some pressure on a person, wanting to do daddy proud/justice and all.
Tyler: I was really impressed with the core performances from Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins (Iron Man 3) who played Dre and Jason Mitchell (Contraband) who played Eazy E. I even didn’t hate Giamatti’s performance as manager Jerry Heller. I thought he did a good job embodying the characters complexity and definitely helped me see why he was so appealing beyond simply offering them fame and fortune only to have been taking advantage of the group all along. Hawkins was the one who really stood out though. Of the three main characters it really felt like he made the best use of his freedom to make the character his own, despite the heavy involvement from the real life Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. The character being stuck between the Eazy E’s unfazed dedication to Heller and Cube’s skepticism allowed him to show the most range. Maybe that’s just good writing but Hawkins certainly took full advantage of it.
Erik: I also want to give props to R. Marcos Taylor, who made music producer and crazy person Suge Knight absolutely terrifying. He had this natural intense presence about him that gave every scene he was in palpable tension. I hope this movie gets him some bigger roles in the future, because (according to his IMDB page at least) his résumé is surprisingly small.
Tyler: Suge Knight was one person with whom I wasn’t super familiar. I knew the legend that he held Vanilla Ice over a hotel balcony to make sure he got his financial dues for the success of “Ice Ice Baby,” but I didn’t know the depth of his mode of doing business. I thought Taylor’s portrayal really brought that out.
Erik: Well, the man’s currently on trial for running people over. So I think the portrayal was probably accurate if nothing else.
Tyler: Haha! I missed that headline. Going back to the film itself, I had some problems with the overall structure and devices in the film, particularly because they are tropes that have became near parody in the last decade with movies like Walk the Line and Ray. It’s always difficult to think about some of these as tropes or exaggerations because they almost always actually happened. To start, I’ll say that I didn’t know Dre’s brother was killed but in the first scene we see him when Dre says something along the lines of “You gotta stay outta trouble,” I knew he wasn’t going to make it to the end of the film. Similar to but less egregious than Ricky in Boyz n the Hood, which starred Ice Cube. I also took issue with the notorious “say every famous person’s name multiple times” device we got with appearances from actors in Tupac and Snoop Dogg costumes. Is it just me, or did these or other moments like that stick out to you?
Erik: I will say the Snoop and Tupac parts were a little bothersome. Only because I didn’t feel they moved the story along in any real meaningful way. It reminded me of the part in Walk the Line (the Johnny Cash biopic) where Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis show up – in both films they feel more like fan service for listeners of the respective music genres. Hey, at least the actors they got were pretty damn good (seriously, it was eerie how much Keith Stanfield’s voice sounded like Snoop’s). I didn’t really have a problem with the familiar tropes or storytelling devices. I think the structure is just one that works for this particular type of film – which is probably why they’ve been doing them like this for so long. Sure, occasionally you get something more experimental like I’m Not There, but because that particular film was more interested in examining Dylan than telling his story, I felt a bit alienated until I looked up his Wikipedia page. Get On Up was actually able to walk the line (no pun intended) between experimental (telling the story in a nonlinear fashion) and accessible, but I don’t know if that sort of style would fit a film like Compton which simply wanted to tell us where these artists came from and how they got to where they are.
Tyler: It’s important to remember that these “tropes” exist because they were formed around real life events. The events don’t bother me themselves but I enjoy it when they stray from the usual path. This also ties into the obligation of art when it adapts real life. I always find that as long as they are represented properly, I don’t take issue with them. For example, I’m sure the group didn’t go back into their recording studio after police harassment and it only took Ice Cube a few hours from their to write “F–k Tha Police” but that song comes from events like that that plagued their lives. I know you said you weren’t super familiar with N.W.A. before the movie but were there any moments that required some leap in logic from the audience, that took you out of the movie?
Erik: I had similar feelings about the writing of “F–k Tha Police.” That said I still think the way they portrayed it was serviceable to the film. And at the end of the day that’s what I go into a narrative film to see, a good story being told. I don’t mind if events based on real ones are stretched, exaggerated, omitted, or completely made up if they’re good on film. If I want a more accurate recounting of events I’ll watch a documentary or read a biography (and even those suffer from reinterpretation at the artist(s) hands). If there was one thing that bothered me though, it was that certain characters just seemed to enter into the characters’ lives with no proper introduction (this is bad in any film, fictional or nonfictional). Cube’s wife just kind of shows up – could we have seen him meeting her at least? We got to see Dre hitting on his future spouse. Also I had no idea who D.O.C. was (I even had to look him up to know his name’s an acronym) yet I had the impression him ending up in the hospital was supposed to be a big deal. That is one thing that bothers me in biopics when the filmmakers seem to expect you to already know the story being told and who all the players are.
Tyler: For better or worse, the film focuses on only three members of the group- the one who died and the two who went on to be prolific members of the music and entertainment industry (and, incidentally, produced the movie). I agree that I would have liked to have known more about what happened to the other members of the group. It’s one of the few times when I would have actually liked to see some title cards before the credits explaining what they did with their careers, rather than just paint them as being along for the ride. Tying into your point though, I liked how this movie stayed focused on its own story, despite a nearly 2 ½ hour run time. It would have been very easy for the film to focus too much on the Rodney King trial and L.A. riots by tying them into more recent instances of police brutality and the protests that followed rather than allowing the audience to make that connection themselves.
Erik: Yes, one thing I liked about the film was how fairly objective it remained. Most of it was just presenting facts (exaggerated or otherwise) and letting the audience draw their own conclusion. No individual was portrayed as overtly good or evil (aside from Suge Knight). It was more along the lines of: here’s what happened and here’s how the people involved reacted to their situations. I like that because it treats the audience like intelligent individuals who don’t need their hands held to get through a story.
Tyler: It’s an important balance to strike in guiding the audience and letting them follow the story themselves. Given that Dre and Cube are behind the movie, I’m sure they knew that this would be many people’s first introduction to N.W.A. As I was leaving the theater earlier today, I noticed a mother and her son in line for the next screening. He couldn’t have been more than nine years-old so I’m sure this was the case for him.