With this and last week’s TV Tuesday, it seems like I’m on a bit of a music-history kick at the moment. It’s just a coincidence, but it is an interesting one, since both The Get Down and Straight Outta Compton show some of the same traits — traits that are kind of universal in music movies.
Insofar as these traits are problems, they’re exaggerated because both Dr Dre and Ice Cube are credited as producers and other members of the group were involved in the production, as was Eazy-E’s widow, Tomica Woods-Wright. On the one hand, good for the musical side of things, but on the other hand, it’s a pretty rosy portrayal of the characters. My wife pointed out that some of the characters’ flaws sound like job interview answers — although everything I know suggests that Dr Dre is a workaholic perfectionist. Similarly, Ice Cube sometimes shouts and flies off the handle, which sounds like an older man acknowledging that he was a bit hot headed in his younger days.
And maybe that’s all it is, but the film did generate some controversy for its complete lack of anything related to Dre’s history of violence against women. In the movie, his girlfriend leaves him because he can’t support her and his child, which is the usual wife-doesn’t-believe-in-musician’s-artistic-dream plot. In reality, she alleges that he hit her. And of course Dee Barnes. Now, in real life Dre has apologised for all this, talked about his journey to maturity, and so on. But it’s just totally absent from the film. I guess there’s no good way they could have handled it, but still. And I gather Jerry Heller is not too pleased with how he was portrayed.
The other thing you always get in musical movies is compression and simplification. That’s got to suck if you’re left out of the story altogether (like the Arabian Prince) or forced into a villain/naysayer role (like Alonzo Williams). The compressed timeline also means that we see less of the members’ pre-NWA careers, although at least they’re discussed, something that really bugged me about Walk the Line. The musical story of it also highlights the police-brutality aspect: these are characters who live in a poor, violent neighbourhood where there is a lot of crime, but for the most part they themselves (except Eazy-E) aren’t criminals, except insofar as it’s unavoidable in that environment. In the film, Dre gets arrested for a brawl, but he was most often arrested for unpaid traffic tickets — i.e. for being broke. Suge Knight’s guys and Snoop nearly get into a fight over gang affiliations, which are just an unavoidable fact of life in that context. I wonder if that idea came home to people who are always complaining about thugs and criminals in hip-hop, but probably those guys aren’t watching an NWA biopic in the first place.
So the whole thing is enjoyable, but it’s more interesting than moving or exciting. Having been a teenager in the 90s, I got a lot of nostalgia moments and gained some context for some stuff I just casually learned about at that time. I was not a big gangster rap fan, but it was just so present in the culture at the time, and it was fascinating to see some reminders of another point of view. But it’s … y’know, it’s a music bio movie, and they are all more or less the same.
I said to Allison: “I was looking at the kid they have playing Ice Cube, and the resemblance was uncanny,” and she said, “his son?” And I said “yup.”