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N.W.A. biopic was dream come true for group, filmmaker
Ice Cube calls himself "just a producer" on "Straight Outta Compton," the new biopic about his groundbreaking rap group, N.W.A.
That's akin to saying Paul McCartney or John Lennon were "just Beatles.
N.W.A. can easily stake a claim as one of rap's most important acts. Its 1988 debut album, also titled "Straight Outta Compton," was a provocative and controversial slice of true-life verbal drama inspired by the gritty reality of the quintet's drug-infested, gang-dominated section of Los Angeles and supported by cinematic instrumental tracks by the group's Dr. Dre. "F*** The Police" may have infuriated law enforcement officers and shocked white America, but it was what was frighteningly accurate reflection of N.W.A.'s surroundings -- and of the urban black experience in many other big cities.
And that was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg as N.W.A. helped move rap beyond party music and gangsta theatrics..
"It's been a lifelong wish, especially after I started to produce movies...to bring this story to the big screen," Ice Cube (real name O'Shea Jackson) said during a Q&A after a screening of the movie late last month at the Emagine Royal Oak theater. A veteran of nearly three dozen films in addition to his rap career, Ice Cube was joined by fellow N.W.A. member Dr. Dre (Andrew Young) in co-producing the film -- which opens Aug. 14 -- and he hopes "Straight Outta Compton" not only documents the socio-political context that inspired the group but also the importance of the music itself.
"I think we really were in love with the music," Ice Cube, 46, explains. "We weren't in love with what people had to say; people were dissing us about all different kinds of stuff, not just tour music. If you're in love with the music you can always have fun, you can always be creative, you can always do something constructive and not destructive.
"So that's what it was all about. We were in love with the music, (and) wasn't anybody gonna pull us away 'cause it was the most positive thing we could grasp at the time. Just coming out of the hood, you could play sports or it was music. So we elevated the music and it was a great refuge and a great place to be creative and do something positive."
Helmed by director F. Gary Gray -- who worked with Ice Cube on several music videos and the 1995 film "Friday" -- "Straight Outta Compton" stars with the late Eazy-E (Eric Wright) escaping a drug bust and tracks the group's formation, its rapid ascent, its break-up over financial and business issues and a near-reunion that was scuttled by Easy-E's death from AIDS in 1995. It also examines the influential solo careers Ice Cube and Dr. Dre forged for themselves, as well as the uneasy and ultimately broken alliance with manager Jerry Heller -- played by Paul Giamatti, fresh off another ambiguously villainous role as Dr. Eugene Landy in the Brian Wilson biopic "Love & Mercy."
Director Gray -- whose credits also include "Set It Off," "The Italian Job" and "Be Cool" -- calls "Straight Outta Compton" "the most important film of my career and...the best film I've done to this point. I was honored to just be able to tell their story." And, Gray added, he wanted to tell it in a way that would appeal to non-rap fans as well as N.W.A. devotees.
"The one thing I wanted to set out to do was to tell a universal story that everybody could identify with," Gray, 46, explained. "You don't have to be rapper, you don't have to be black to understand brotherhood. You don't have to be in that (Compton) environment to understand love, and also courage. These guys had love for each other and someone came in and divided them and tried to conquer them. We understand what that feels like."
Despite the studio's wish for known, bankable talent, Gray insisted on using relatively unknown actors as the group members, noting that "if I cast someone who's familiar, it's going to take (the viewer) out of the movie." Among those he chose was O'Shea Jackson, Jr. playing his own father, though only after two years' of auditions and screen tests.
"It's a dream come true," Jackson said. "My father's my hero. I was about 18 years old when I started to realize the kind of impact he had. So seeing the movie being made without me was something I couldn't do. I couldn't see my family's legacy in anybody else's hands."
Proud papa Ice Cube said the filmmakers also "fought" to have the film shot in Compton and around Los Angeles. "We thought Compton was a character, too," he said. "We had to show y'all why we produced the kind of music we did...by showing you the streets we came from and the things we had to go through. It's just a hint on the screen, but we wanted to be vivid."
Detroit plays a role in "Straight Outta Compton" as well, documenting the group's August 1999 appearance at Joe Louis Arena, which turned into a riot after N.W.A. flaunted a police warning not to perform its hit "F*** The Police" that night and was arrested after officers stormed the stage. Ice Cube says the group was already unhappy that it was billed too early in the multi-act show -- "We had the hottest record," he noted -- and the edict from the police only added fuel to the fire.
"We (were) sick of these people telling us what to do," Ice Cube said. "The police would read us obscenity laws and tell us what they was gonna do to us if we sang 'F*** The Police', so we jsut got mad and we just did it that night and the police rushed us and they messed up a great show...and they caused a whole bunch of commotion."
The filmmakers are hoping "Straight Outta Compton" generates some excitement around N.W.A. again, too. The surviving group members have reunited on a few occasions, and there are rumors of some performances in Europe to support the film's release there. (Detroit rapper Eminem, however, has denied reports he'd be part of that.) Dr. Dre has just released "Compton: A Soundtrack by Dr. Dre" of music inspired by the film, and Ice Cube said he's confident the movie will steer more attention towards the group's legacy.
"I think people are gonna buy the music, but I think people are really gonna understand our family tree," he said, referring to the group members' individual careers, including other artists they each developed. "Everything really started with N.W.A. Everybody who came out of my camp to do things, it all started with this. So I think it's cool that people see the origin, the essence of where it all comes from."
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