Tag Archives: Straight Outta Compton

Estate Agency: The Authorised Music Biopic Debate

Directed by Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou [1997], Harriet [2019]) and written by Anthony McCarten (Bohemian Rhapsody [2018]), I Wanna Dance with Somebody (2022) follows the life of late American pop icon Whitney Houston, played by Naomi Ackie. Among the film’s executive producers is Clive Davis, the record producer who discovered Houston, while close involvement from Houston’s estate has reportedly come through representative Pat Houston, Whitney’s sister-in-law and long-time intermediary.

Much like print tome biographies, an authorised music biopic presents a veneer of authenticity. Consultation with living artists, or their family members and close confidantes if they have passed, would seem to ensure a certain degree of verisimilitude, rather than solely depending on unsubstantiated hearsay. When it comes to films, it’s also a considerable benefit to have access to the artists’ actual recordings (the 2020 David Bowie biopic Stardust suffered in this regard). Clive Davis, speaking to Variety about the Houston movie, said, ‘For me, it was important for the film to answer all questions honestly, authentically, about who Whitney was. Whether it was her sexuality, whether it was her addiction, whether it was how she and I worked together… We wanted to get it right. We wanted to get the music right, above all.’

And yet, despite such seemingly honourable intentions, authorised biopics still manage to inspire heated debate among both film and music critics, as well as the fanbases of the respective artists; the more famous and beloved the artist, the more passionate the debate. The genre can so often be defined by the things left out of a story, as opposed to the effective adaptation of what’s kept in…

Full feature for Curzon Journal

Straight Outta Compton (F. Gary Gray, 2015)

The problem with most biographical dramas, particularly those concerning musicians, is that they can often play like greatest hits samplers rather than a cohesive, insightful character study. Some of the best music biopics are those that take a formally interesting approach that feels akin to the spirit of the artist/s in question, rather than trying to box their persona into a rigid formula; Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There is one example, as is the recent Love & Mercy, which offers a dual performance to depict two decades in the life of subject Brian Wilson, but also sonically innovative soundscapes to convey the troubled genius’ artistic process.

This is not to say that the traditional music biopic formula is of inherently dubious quality. As with any genre, execution is key. Straight Outta Compton, a portrait of N.W.A (though mainly members Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E) from director F. Gary Gray, is one such example of the formula done very well. Or, at least, up to a point…

Full review for VODzilla.co