Music and movies have frequently gone together. While cinema loves a good musical, often musicians have tried to make the move to the silver screen, and cinematic stories themselves have tried to capture the life of a musician through works of fiction or Oscar-calibre biopics. For Music in the Movies, Set the Tape will explore musical biopics, the mixed successes of attempts to make musicians movie stars, and tales that revel in the wonder of music and lyrics.
There is a lovely in-joke during the latter stages of Straight Outta Compton, when Ice Cube (played by Ice Cube’s real-life son O’ Shea Jackson) is sitting at a table reading the script for the movie Friday declaring it really funny. That Friday was directed by F. Gary Gray, who is also the one calling the shots on this movie, is a rare piece of humour in a film that is brimming with not only a serious exploration of the creation of rap group N.W.A, but also on the circumstances that led them to explore the social lives they were surrounded by via music.
The film begins with a drugs bust that plays out more like something from a war zone. Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) finds himself running from a house that is being bombarded not only by a SWAT team, but a mini tank that practically destroys the very house he is in. It’s a ferocious piece of criticism levelled at Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs, which targeted lower-class African-American communities, not with tact or any sense of human decency but as if it was a war zone that needed a rough hand, violently if need be.
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While many music biopics entertainingly recreate the world of the time around an A-list cast getting to play dress up with pivotal moments in history, there is always a danger (especially with stories about white characters) that they are sugar-coating that very history, even if they fleetingly deal with it. F. Gary Gray may have made his debut with the comedic timings of Friday and went on to become one of Hollywood’s most underrated talents, turning his hand to some great jobs for hire (The Italian Job remake, The Negotiator, Law Abiding Citizen) but he creates something of a masterpiece here.
To see a cast that includes Ice Cube’s real-life son playing him, not to mention Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Aldis Hodge and Nell Brown Jr recreate the dynamics, camaraderie and falling out of a group of musicians who challenged the status quo and made hip-hop into a mainstream success while never losing sight of the political message, is astonishing to watch.
At two and a half hours long, this might look like it’s going to be a bit much, but it’s paced to perfection, directed superbly by Gray and played by its young cast with astonishing clarity and brilliance. It finds the prerequisite joys of how the group found their voice, created it, honed it and made something potent and powerful out of their words and music, but it’s never for one moment a sugar-coated film. The acid air of racism and racial imbalance is explored throughout so much of the storytelling; a powerful reminder of a world the group had to contend with, even after they crossed over into the mainstream and found success.
Even with the portrayal of their success, it never loses sight of its powerful beating heart. The film portrays the success they achieve, going from their lower-class beginnings to a life filled with luxurious houses and mansions that are far away from the streets they grew up on, but even then the spectre of racism and hate is sadly never far away. The surroundings may change, but white conservatism will always rear its ugly head to spout hate and criticism that is ignorant and borderline stupid.
They continue to face police racism and a public that believes that their music is glamourising guns and gang culture, more ignorance they have to face in simply writing and performing music about their lives, ones that white people have no idea or comprehension of. That hatred even extends to their albums being bought simply to destroy them in public protests, another moment of lovely gentle humour when the band remarks hilariously that they’ll still make money from the sales.
Even with their success and fame, however, the film never looks away from how they were manipulated by their (white) management. The portrayal of manager Jerry Heller is perhaps the film’s biggest controversial point, with the real-life Heller (here portrayed by an enjoyably slimy Paul Giamatti) filing a lawsuit against the filmmakers for defamation of character and claiming that parts were taken from his autobiography without his permission.
Although Heller begins the film with a friendly face, you can see which way the film is going to go and how he’s going to abuse his position. He might treat Eazy-E like a son, but the scenes between them stink of manipulation from Heller’s end. Sure enough, the good days don’t last forever and the band goes their separate ways, eventually releasing diss tracks on the others in their heated public arguments.
Thankfully, the film never lets that be the lasting image of the group. A potential reunion is on the cards by the third act, but it’s caught short by Eazy’s tragic ill health, his diagnosis of HIV proving life-threatening. There is a sense that the predominantly white music industry maybe ruined not only a good thing creatively, but also emotionally.
Straight Outta Compton, like so many films of the music biopic genre, gets a massive kick out of recreating the aura of genius and the threads that led to a branch of the music masterpiece tree, but what it comes down to more than anything is in celebrating friendship and love in its final moments, a friendship and love that led to some of the most brilliantly confrontational music in a generation and art that had so much to say, and which sadly is still all too relevant today.