Skip to main content

Speak a little truth and people lose their minds.

Straight Outta Compton
(2015)

Don’t believe the hype. For Straight Outta Compton to be as good as its acclaim from some quarters suggests, it would have to be some kind of fundamental reinvention of the biopic, that most moribund of genres. Instead, it’s a fairly standard-issue telling of NWA’s rise and disintegration, made with journeyman lack of flair by F Gary Gray. It lucks-in with a series of standout performances, however, so much so that the veteran of the cast, Paul Giamatti, looks vaguely like the one who’s going through the motions.


And for getting on for 90 minutes (I saw the director’s cut), Straight Outta Compton is at least in the top tier of scaling-the-ladder-of-fame stories, carried along by natural narrative energy; not unlike a sports biopic (I’m no great sports fan and I’m not great rap fan, Tone Loc aside), you don’t have to relate to the subject matter if the storytelling is there.


Gray isn’t the kind of director who can work marvels with material, but he can service it effectively enough. Which is why, when it comes to the second half of the picture, as the main players go their separate ways and the focus divides and falters (rather than, when they were together, offering complementary ensemble), he’s unable to bolster the proceedings. One wonders at the decision to procure him for Fast 8, since a heightened quality is just what that series demands; Vin Diesel’s executive decision to go for realism may not reap the dividends he hoped.


As always with a biopic, you can’t get too shirty over what it plays fast and loose with; that’s what documentaries are for (and even then…) When the subject matter is recent and the (most of) the subjects are living, and one of them produced the thing, it becomes even more likely that the treatment will skirt controversial depictions of its heroes. So the group are rambunctious rather than actively misogynistic (or homophobic), with Dr Dre only ever inflicting violence on men. Indeed, he comes across instead as the man with his mind on higher, artier things, which given his creative legacy is perhaps understandable.


Corey Hawkins’ sensitive performance is perfectly pitched in that regard, comparing and contrasting to Shea Jackson Jr (a remarkable study of his father; or, he’s simply very much a chip off the old block) as Ice Cube and Jason Mitchell as the ill-fated Eazy-E. Everyone else, Giamatti’s nefarious manager aside, is more or less window dressing and background texture. Which again, makes sense. The bane of biopics can be how painfully linear they feel, and with three main characters, Straight Outta Compton at least avoids coming across quite so overtly so.


The screenplay (credited to four different writers, all of them white, as per this year’s Oscar diversity controversy highlighting its lack of recognition outside the Best Original Screenplay category; although, I’d argue such standard biopic fare as this was lucky to receive even that nod) gets the “positive” legacy controversy down, particularly in respect of Fuck Tha Police and being on the receiving end of police harassment and violence, as they spearhead the explosion of “this whole reality rap shit” that the most of the music industry was keen to dismiss. Bring in the FBI, attempting to hoover up their lyrical pronouncements with threats (“Maybe we should be happy. This is free publicity for NWA”) and the manipulations of manager Jerry Heller (Giamatti), and you have a potent brew, making for engrossing cinema.


But, following Ice Cube’s split, and then Dre’s alliance with Suge Knight (R Marcos Taylor), the picture has problems maintaining its verve. The in-fighting (Cube responds to NWA’s sleights lyrically) never feels truly combustible, and when Suge beats a man over a parking place, to Dre’s aghast response, it’s positioned as coming out of nowhere rather than something that must have been brewing all along. 


It’s fun to see cameos from soon-to-be rap legends (Snoop Dogg, Tupac), and the picture does sign off at a (rather perfunctory) point where it would be interesting to witness the furtherance of their careers (well, Cube’s spiral into a very variable roster of acting roles, not so much, although xXx: State of the Union would no doubt be a high point), but it becomes clear post the fact it has been listing alarmingly, its through-line (the death of Easy E, the potential reformation of NWA) simply insufficient emotionally or narratively to support it. As biopics go, Straight Outta Compton is above average, but it’s still very much a biopic, with all the dilution, preformatting and playing it safe that entails.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

The Krishna died of a broken finger? I mean, is that a homicide?

Miami Blues (1990) (SPOILERS) If the ‘90s crime movie formally set out its stall in 1992 with Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs , another movie very quietly got in there first at the beginning of the decade. Miami Blues picked up admiring reviews but went otherwise unnoticed on release, and even now remains under-recognised. The tale of “blithe psychopath” Federick J. Frenger, Jr., the girl whose heart he breaks and the detetive sergeant on his trail, director George Armitage’s adaptation of Charles Willeford’s novel wears a pitch black sense of humour and manages the difficult juggling act of being genuinely touching with it. It’s a little gem of a movie, perfectly formed and concisely told, one that more than deserves to rub shoulders with the better-known entries in its genre. One of the defining characteristics of Willeford’s work, it has been suggested , is that it doesn’t really fit into the crime genre; he comes from an angle of character rather than plot or h

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

You think a monkey knows he’s sitting on top of a rocket that might explode?

The Right Stuff (1983) (SPOILERS) While it certainly more than fulfils the function of a NASA-propaganda picture – as in, it affirms the legitimacy of their activities – The Right Stuff escapes the designation of rote testament reserved for Ron Howard’s later Apollo 13 . Partly because it has such a distinctive personality and attitude. Partly too because of the way it has found its through line, which isn’t so much the “wow” of the Space Race and those picked to be a part of it as it is the personification of that titular quality in someone who wasn’t even in the Mercury programme: Chuck Yaeger (Sam Shephard). I was captivated by The Right Stuff when I first saw it, and even now, with the benefit of knowing-NASA-better – not that the movie is exactly extolling its virtues from the rooftops anyway – I consider it something of a masterpiece, an interrogation of legends that both builds them and tears them down. The latter aspect doubtless not NASA approved.

You tampered with the universe, my friend.

The Music of Chance (1993) (SPOILERS) You won’t find many adaptations of Paul Auster’s novels. Original screenplays, yes, a couple of which he has directed himself. Terry Gilliam has occasionally mentioned Mr. Vertigo as in development. It was in development in 1995 too, when Philip Haas and Auster intended to bring it to the screen. Which means Auster presumably approved of Haas’ work on The Music of Chance (he also cameos). That would be understandable, as it makes for a fine, ambiguous movie, pregnant with meaning yet offering no unequivocal answers, and one that makes several key departures from the book yet crucially maintains a mesmerising, slow-burn lure.

Drank the red. Good for you.

Morbius (2022) (SPOILERS) Generic isn’t necessarily a slur. Not if, by implication, it’s suggestive of the kind of movie made twenty years ago, when the alternative is the kind of super-woke content Disney currently prioritises. Unfortunately, after a reasonable first hour, Morbius descends so resignedly into such unmoderated formula that you’re left with a too-clear image of Sony’s Spider-Verse when it lacks a larger-than-life performer (Tom Hardy, for example) at the centre of any given vehicle.

People still talk about Pandapocalypse 2002.

Turning Red (2022) (SPOILERS) Those wags at Pixar, eh? Yes, the most – actually, the only – impressive thing about Turning Red is the four-tiered wordplay of its title. Thirteen-year-old Mei (Rosalie Chiang) finds herself turning into a large red panda at emotive moments. She is also, simultaneously, riding the crimson wave for the first time. Further, as a teenager, she characteristically suffers from acute embarrassment (mostly due to the actions of her domineering mother Ming Lee, voiced by Sandra Oh). And finally, of course, Turning Red can be seen diligently spreading communist doctrine left, right and centre. To any political sensibility tuning in to Disney+, basically (so ones with either considerable or zero resistance to woke). Take a guess which of these isn’t getting press in reference to the movie? And by a process of elimination is probably what it it’s really about (you know in the same way most Pixars, as far back as Toy Story and Monsters, Inc . can be given an insi