There’s an early scene in the Mozart biopic, “Amadeus” where the title character (played by Tom Hulce) eagerly describes an opera he’s working on to a group of Austrian court members and is asked what the setting is. The answer: in a brothel does not please anyone. Over the course of the movie, we see the musician deal with professional jealousy and backstabbing; family and financial woes; as well as excessive alcohol use and incomprehension (mostly from older critics) as to the true nature/message of his work.
“Straight Outta Compton,” which opened last week, a biopic of the rap group N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitude) follows a group of young African-American men from rags to riches, as they grapple with many of the same issues that plague gifted musicians on their way up, regardless of skin color and era, though of course, there are certain problems that stem directly from racism. A white teenager chanting, “Fuck the police,” is clearly never going to be seen as half a threat a black teen would, and he may even avoid getting put in a headlock and slammed up against a cruiser, which happens to the protagonists several times in the movie for offenses ranging to speeding to standing on the sidewalk shooting the breeze. Artists have always been (in)famous for shaking up the status quo, but the consequences don’t always involve being arrested simply for their lyrics.
The movie starts out (where else?) in 1986 Compton, California and follows the five main band members, including Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Eazy E. (Jason Mitchell) from their beginnings as friends with a passion for music, who, despite the moans of one of their mothers, devote their free time to performing and mixing songs. One day, a white guy, Jerry Heller, (Paul Giamatti, seen in a similar role in “Love and Mercy”) approaches them and offers to represent them. At first, they are skeptical, as is Paul’s elderly colleague, who attends a NWA performance and says, “Jerry, you’re my friend – but call me when you find the next Bon Jovi,” and beats a hasty retreat, but soon they realize he can help them. The help turns out to be a mixed blessing, as tensions flare over who is getting more publicity, and eventually, the band splits. There is much controversy over the lyrics “glamorizing the ghetto lifestyle,” as well as real life historic events like the LA riots following the Rodney King verdict. There are rivalries and friendships formed with other would-be famous rappers. Eventually, one of the characters starts coughing, and someone else utters the prophetic words, “You don’t sound well.” Strides toward maturity are made, as the mistakes made due to youthful inexperience and perhaps an excess of testosterone are learned from, and the movie ends with pretty much everyone older and wiser.
I’ve seen online complaints that this movie “shouldn’t have been made,” presumably because of the frequent coarse language and depictions of the protagonists’ lifestyle during their popularity, but I didn’t really see anything better or worse than say, in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” it’s there for a reason besides mere shock value. Though the band members are accused of glamorizing, the reality is that the lyrics may simply hit close to home (witness the look on the cops’ face during one performance), and it’s clear that they have tapped into genuine emotion in their fans. Perhaps they didn’t stir up trouble so much as give a powerful voice to problems already existing. As Ice Cube puts it in the movie, “Speak a little truth, and people lose their minds.”