I had a few expectations going into Straight Out of Compton, the new biopic about gangsta rap pioneers N.W.A. For example, I expected the movie to be similar to last year's Get On Up, because both N.W.A. and James Brown were musical geniuses, social instigators and generalized misogynists. I also expected it to be like Selma in that both N.W.A. and Martin Luther King spent much of their time in the spotlight discussing divisive racial struggles that still haunt us today. I even kind of expected it to be like Spring Breakers because I knew it would have to reckon with the dark side of hip hop's culture of hedonism - after all, N.W.A. founder Eazy-E contracted AIDS after having years and years of promiscuous sex.
I have to say: I never expected it to be so much like one of the Star Wars prequels.
Don't get me wrong: Straight Out of Compton doesn't feature any aliens, nor are there any laser battles or trips to outer space. No, Straight Out of Compton and the Star Wars prequels are similar for more pedestrian reasons - they are both obsessed with boring business transactions. The prequels are all a weird mishmash of standard issue blockbuster setpieces and overly complicated political schemes: Phantom Menace starts off with some rubber faced extraterrestrials negotiating an intergalactic trade deal; all of the clones in Attack of the Clones were created to fulfill a shady military contract; and Revenge of the Sith makes it clear that the Emperor's backstage politicking was just as much a part of his rise to power as his death squads. And Straight Out of Compton is the same way: it indulges in every sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll cliche imaginable, but almost all of its major plot events are motivated by run of the mill contractual disputes.
I can't deny that there is plenty of exciting stuff in Straight Out of Compton. It opens with a scene where a SWAT team uses a battering ram to break into a crack house, forcing Eazy-E to run for his life. And yes, N.W.A. does regularly have confrontations with law enforcement - the FBI tries to censor their song "Fuck Tha Police" and at one point Dr. Dre gets arrested after a high speed car chase. There is even a showdown between N.W.A. and some cranky Detroit cops that leads to a riot. But while those confrontations are very dramatic they aren't very consequential. N.W.A. continued to play "Fuck Tha Police" on tour, Dr. Dre clearly got out on bail, and we never hear about Detroit again after we see the rappers get handcuffed and tossed in the back of a paddy wagon. Their scrapes with the law must have been frustrating, but in retrospect they weren't real threats to the group's success - if anything they actually enabled N.W.A.'s rise because they burnished their street cred as outlaws.
No, the real threat to their continued success was much less flashy: N.W.A.'s manager Jerry Heller definitely helped the group get their foot in fortune's door but he was also the force that caused them to self-destruct. Heller is your classic show-biz bogeyman who exploited his talent and then covered it up by playing them against each other. The first step in N.W.A.'s demise comes when their main lyricist Ice Cube discovers that Ruthless Records hasn't paid him the proper amount of royalties and he decides to embark upon a solo career elsewhere. Before too long the group's sonic architect Dr. Dre quits the group for similar reasons, effectively ending N.W.A.'s ability to create groundbreaking albums. But while Heller is this film's main villain he isn't the only one - Dre's next deal with Death Row Records is so bad that he willingly trades any ownership stakes in his 5 times platinum CD the Chronic for the ability to walk away from his contract.
Straight Out of Compton's emphasis on legal disputes is both an interesting and frustrating take on this story. It helps give the movie an honest feel - there is no way that the scriptwriters would have structured the narrative arc this way unless they had had to. Furthermore, it turns the movie into a fresh type of cautionary tale - this movie is less about the risks of drugs and alcohol and more about the need to read any binding legal document before you sign it. And that's good advice; the straight truth is that bad contracts really are the biggest threat to an ambitious young musician's career.
However, that emphasis on lawyering and relawyering contracts is also a problem, in large part because it grows tedious over the course of the overlong movie. First Cube learns of Heller's deception; then Dre learns; then Eazy-E learns; then Dre learns again, this time with a different bad manager. But even if all of those revelations weren't repetitive they would still grate - there's just a hard limit to how much reality you want from a movie like this. The same way that everyone walked out of the prequels saying "too many merchant muppets, not enough lightsaber fighting" I walked out of Straight Out of Compton thinking "too many record execs, not enough rapper antics."
I know that it is a bit odd to compare Star Wars to Straight Out of Compton - they have very different tones, since Compton is very earthbound and not very kid friendly. No, a more fitting analogue for Straight Out of Compton would be a Civil War film where the main threat was mosquitoes. Such a movie wouldn't be particularly sexy, but it would be realistic since more soldiers died from malaria than from bullets in that conflict. But I don't think that such a movie exists, and I don't think it exists for a good reason: because Hollywood knows better than to make such an uncinematic war film. Now if only they knew better than to make such uncinematic biopics and such uncinematic space operas...