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‘Straight Outta Compton’ Has Become the Highest-Grossing Music Biopic Ever. What’s the Secret to Its Success?

'Straight Outta Compton' Has Become the Highest-Grossing Music Biopic Ever. What's the Secret to Its Success?

Straight Outta Compton” has reached yet another milestone this week, becoming the highest grossing music bio-pic ever. At currently $136 million and still counting, it beat out the previous No.1 film in that category, “Walk The Line” – the film about Johnny Cash, which grossed nearly $120 million, and held that record for a decade. “Ray,” the Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles film, now drops to third, with $75 million.

Clearly “Compton” has touched a nerve with black audiences. There were other hip-hop films before it, going back to “Krush Groove” thirty years ago in 1985. But, with the exception of the Eminem film “8 Mile,” which made some $116 million, none of them was as huge a financially hit, or as critically acclaimed, as “Compton.” The film has truly captured the zeitgeist in the country. And lately, I’ve been thinking about why it’s been such a big success.


As you may recall, I predicted (and underestimated) a few weeks before the film came out, that it would gross $100 million. But that was based on the very positive reaction from the advance screening audience I saw the film with, as well as Universal’s very smart and effective marketing campaign that made it the one film that you could not miss, and the fact that, for someone whose music tastes run towards Handel, Richard Strauss and Shostakovich, I found the NWA story pretty compelling.

But that can’t be all. There have to be other reasons. I asked a few people for their opinions, and their reasons were quite varied. A few said they agreed with me that a major reason for the success of the film was that it was attracting older hip-hop fans who grew up with NWA, who are all middle age now, as well as younger rap fans who see NWA as innovators. Thus attracting a broad audience of all ages.

Another person said that the film was a hit due mainly to the popularity of Dr Dre, who he called a “goddamn genius,” and that “there was no one who understood melody better” than him. Furthermore, the musical talent that Dre has developed and produced since NWA have made him very popular with younger people who are then going to see the film, to basically see how it all started. 
On a similar track, another person told me that “Compton” was a hit was because it was, in effect, a new variation on the old gangster film genre, and that Dr.Dre is “the pre-eminent gangster of his generation. So too is his paymaster Apple and accomplice Jimmy Iovine”.

Could it be that NWA was really that popular? Honestly I wouldn’t know. The ads for the group call them “The World’s Most Dangerous Group”. Seriously? I would have given that title to Public Enemy. They were, to me, the really dangerous ones because they were political and encouraged their listeners to think and challenge the establishment that they believed was out to manipulate and destroy them. NWA may be have been “dangerous” in that, they presented a chance that you could get shot at one of their concerts.

But the popularity of NWA, whatever it may be, or individual members, can’t be the only answer. Sure there are a lot of NWA fans who went to see the movie, but they they alone wouldn’t have made the film a huge box office hit, which is soon to approach $150 million in ticket sales. It means that the film is pulling in many non-NWA fans and people who aren’t even that into hip-hop (and shocking as it may be to some, not all black people listen to hip-hip. Some even hate it).

Perhaps there is also the “wanting to be in the in crowd effect” working to full effect here. All your friends and neighbors are going to see the film, and are raving about it, and even though you really have no interest, you go see it too, so that you can be as *current* and hip as they are. 

It’s also possible that another reason for the film’s success is the “Thank God it’s not a black rom-com or a comedy with Kevin Hart, or a Holy Jesus black movie” sentiment, which too many studio-produced black films seem to be these days. A lot of people have been waiting and looking for something that wasn’t a “chick flick” nor something that their grandmother would like to see. A different kind of black film that had some substance to it.

Then again, maybe it’s something else so obvious that I don’t see it. So how about you tell us why you think the film has become such a big success, and has caught the imagination of so many people? Why did you see it?

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