When you're young, everything moves so quickly. A year can encapsulate a who era of change, and in two years you won't even recognize the person you were before. The music you listen to feels so adult, so real, when in reality, it's being made by people only slightly older than you are.
Growing up in the late '80s, hip-hop seemed to match that growth. It moved and evolved at the speed of light, as major players sprang up from seemingly nowhere to displace the previous champs of the genre. Raising Hell-era Run-DMC and License to Ill-era Beastie Boys defined one year, but quickly gave way the next. We got Public Enemy. We got BDP. We got LL Cool J. For better or for worse, we got M.C. Hammer and 2 Live Crew.
And we got N.W.A, who redefined the notion of what could and couldn't be said in a song, who claimed the status of “street reporters” as they either publicized or exploited what it meant to be a disenfranchised black street kid, who opened to door for the completely new G-funk era of hip-hop.
And they did it all in a few short years, with (let's be honest) only a handful of truly great songs.
So I was excited to see the biopic named for their greatest collective achievement, Straight Outta Compton. I wanted to inhabit that time when I was a kid again, to view the creation of something as contentious and vital as “Fuck Tha Police” or as sharp and witty as “Express Yourself.” I wanted to see how the early years of Cube, Dre, Eazy, Ren, and Yella fueled that righteous (if occasionally misdirected) rage. I wanted to inhabit that world again, where people only a few years older and a world away from my life seemed so damn old, so damn bold.
And I got what I wanted — sort of. Kind of. For a little while.
But mostly what I got was a movie so picked over, so curated, and yet so in need of telling as much of the story as possible, that in its 2.5 hour run time it barely scratches the surface.
Anyone who's a fan of N.W.A. won't need a plot summary. In fact, only those who've never heard of them or ever seen a music biopic before would need one. They got together. They made some music. They had fun doing it. They believed in something. They got dicked around by people more savvy to the music biz. They fought over money. They split up. Spoiler alert: some of them went on to bigger things, some of them faded into obscurity, some of them died.
Mostly, what the movie provides is an overview, and if that's all I was looking for, I'd be incredibly satisfied. The first half of the movie, which lays out how the group got together, documents their early shows in South Central and Compton shithole clubs and roller rinks, and the creative process of 1988's Straight Outta Compton. It's fantastic, even if it falls into familiar territory — every failure (like Dr. Dre getting kicked out of his mom's house) is easily followed by a success; every success is punctuated by a reminder of how bad things can be (usually by an face-down-on-the-pavement visit from the cops).
But the movie doesn't go deep that often, preferring to go long. It becomes increasingly episodic and spotty as things go on, just focused on delivering the key parts of the story, and leaving out plenty. As former City Pages contributor Jim Derogatis and others have noted, the movie doesn't come close to addressing the very real issues of misogyny and homophobia that plagued their lyrics and their lives. It uses the Rodney King beating, trial, and riots as a thematic touchstone but it never seems to connect, passing by on TVs in recording studios and mansions.
It's only when Ice Cube actually takes to the streets, watching the riots unfold from his car, that the impact hits you full tilt, down to the shot of two rival gang members walking boldly towards waiting cops, red and blue bandannas tied together. But the film keeps moving back to the business at hand, while never depicting any of the group as culpable in their struggles; their problems are always caused by others (specifically, manager Jerry Heller and Priority Records owner Bryan Turner and later, mogul/kingpin/menace Suge Knight).
Rodney King wasn't that long ago. NWA wasn't that long ago. Twenty-five years is just a record skip in time, and if you watch the news, it doesn't seem like we've learned much. Even as we move forward, something drags us off course, which is the closest thing to a theme Straight Outta Compton has. It's thrilling in spots, tragic in spots, chilling in spots, hilarious in spots. It's all of these things. But they don't make a whole.
The best biopics manage an uncomfortable dance with their subjects. They waltz between the real, the stylized, and the symbolic, knowing when to get into the minute details, when to tweak the facts to carry the story, when to make their subjects bigger than life. You can argue that hip-hop records work the same way. Straight Outta Compton the album was half genius, five or six songs that dared you to turn away and knew you couldn't. The rest? Not so much.
Straight Outta Compton the film doesn't dance, it lurches. When it's at it's worst, it feels like a carefully constructed bit of public relations for Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre that never calls them on their bullshit. But when it's at its best, it manages to electrify the way N.W.A. did 27 years ago. It actually brings the audience close to feeling how damn transgressive and powerful they were, even as teenagers. Exhibit 1: When Ice Cube asks a packed audience to raise their middle fingers in the air before breaking into “Fuck Tha Police”, defying a horde of Detroit's finest there to arrest them, it's absolutely enthralling. And vital. And brutally relevant. It dares you to turn away.