Finally! Despite a strong temptation to rewatch Hail Caesar! we got our act together and after much procrastination, finally got around to Straight Outta Compton. I would be the first to admit that the rise of NWA and West-Coast Rap totally passed me by, being a white, middle-class kid from the North East of England, and not the sort of one who ever felt to need to pretend they were "street" either. I was aware of it, of course, and even listened to some of it, but deep down I'd have been hard pushed to tell my Ice Cube from my Vanilla Ice (as a totally different song goes!), never mind have any real grasp on the byzantine web of rivalries and relationships that seemed to be behind it all. So, does the movie shed any light on this and convert me over to the scene?
So with the caveat that I'm not too sure what is actually true, what is embellished and what is glossed over, Straight Outta Compton is a mix of what feels like stark and powerful insights into the lives of these artists, and soft-balls around some of the relationships and flaws. It also dances arounds some very familiar biopic beats, saved for being about subjects that rarely get the Biopic treatment, and some great performances and set-pieces. It's also, in it's final act, a little too sentimental around the death of one of it's subjects, which jars with the harder opening (both in content and character treatments). I'll try and break all that down, anyway.
The movie opens with a quick intro to it's three protagonists - Ice Cube, Dr Dre and Easy E - with a quick scene setter for where their pre-fame lives are. The opening "rise to stardom" section is probably the films strongest, not least due to the great concert recreations that counterpoint undoubted stage presence with the establishment blow-back they provoked. "Plucky Kids Take on Establishment" is a well-worn path but Straight Outta Compton is direct and to the point about the state of race-relations in the US at the time, and the narrative of a community finding it's voice about the life it actually leads is refreshing in this context.
The film's second act is less striking, as NWA fall apart and the main players go their separate ways. In the early running, the pace of time running away is heady, a sense that the world is spinning out of control, but here it's less successful. It makes for a more disjointed series of events that just sort of happen; especially around relationships - the films near total lack of female characters is most start here as wives and girlfreinds flit across the screen with no impact or weight, nor even a commentary on that lack. It only really works in the service of the manager Jerry, who becomes an ambiguous figure, lining his own nest but seeming to genuninely care - and be genuinely hurt by the fallout - nevertheless.
As the film winds to it's final affection homage to Easy E, it also becomes a bit of a homage to the impact of the group, as a series of blink and you'll miss it nods to other artists seem to pop up. It also remains pretty clear eyed on the apparent fact that the violence of these guys early lives followed them as they became succesful, that a macho, violent culture was something they struggled to be free of. It makes for a film that ultimately celebrates how tough NWA had it, and how much their undoubted talent had to struggle to get through, as well as the legacy they led. It's really good, I'm only sorry it took so long for us to get around to it!