Thanks to the tremendous success of N.W.A chronicle Straight Outta Compton, the hip-hop biopic is taking off like a golden-plated jumbo jet. As you read this sentence, a self directed Master P biopic is due for a spring release and a film about the life of martyred rapper Tupac Shakur titled All Eyez on Me has begun shooting. As the life stories of hip-hop’s greatest legends travel from the mean streets to the glittering cinema marquees, here are our favourite examples of this dazzling genre.
Straight Outta Compton (2015, directed by F. Gary Gray)
Considering that 85% of Oscar voters are aged over 50, this year’s shocking snubbing of Compton is probably the greatest endorsement imaginable. This is a rollickingly resonant musical with beats coursing through its body and racial prejudice looming on its mind, at once deeply educational about the revolutionary hip-hop group’s controversial rise to fame and timely to the ongoing diversity struggles which dominate the airwaves. Critics were impressed, but Compton is above all a euphoric audience picture, grossing a huge $200 million worldwide. While it’s possible that having original members Ice Cube and Dr.Dre as producers contributed some illuminating, never-seen-before details, it’s very true that this film is unapologetically history written by victors- the misogyny and homophobia of the band’s lyrical output is never explored to a satisfying depth.
Liner Note: F.Gary Gray previously directed the music video for Ice Cube’s solo hit. “Today was a Good Day”.
Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2005, Directed by Jim Sheridan)
A Rapper, actor, entrepreneur, producer, and with a whopping 30 million in record sales, the life story of Curtis James Jackson II, better known by his stage name 50 Cent, was practically destined for the silver screen. even has the chutzpah to play himself in this 2005 biopic, named after his first album and written by Wolf of Wall Street scribe Terence Winter. Cent himself estimated the film was “about 75% factual”, although the slight fictionalisation does not prevent this peppy, at times laughably overblown picture from entertaining.
Liner Note: The soundtrack album for “Get Rich” has sold nearly 3 million copies worldwide.
8 Mile (2002, directed by Curtis Hanson)
Yes, we’re cheating a little here, but hear me out. 8 Mile, a hip-hop drama released in 2002, follows a white rapper aching to be taken seriously in a genre dominated by black artists. While not a strict biopic, the story gathers its authentic narrative force from the early experiences of Detroit superstar Eminem, who also stars (Clearly flourishing under the direction of L.A. Confidential helmer Curtis Hanson) and won an Oscar for “Lose Yourself”, a song which was specially written for the production. Thanks to a textured social conscience, 8 Mile is beloved by moviegoers and critics alike and still retains its emotionally eviscerating power , despite the leading man’s decline in popularity. Seek it out; here’s a genuine cult classic.
Liner Note: The title derives from the 8 Mile Road, a highway which divides Detroit’s working class black districts from the white middle class suburbs of Oakland County and Macomb County.
Notorious (2009, directed by George Tillman, Jr.)
Christopher Wallace only performed as The Notorious B.I.G for six years before he was murdered in a still-unsolved driveby in 1997 , but his stylistic influence and evocative lyrics still resonates through the work of modern hip-hop artists such as Jay-Z and 50 Cent. The latter’s hit “Realest Ni—gers” even owes its title to one of Wallace’s verses. A film of his tragically brief life was frankly inevitable. Shame then, that such a pioneering figure would be monumentalised by director George Tillman, Jr in a manner so cringingly conventional that you could set your watch by it. Wallace’s talent raged like a pillar of unfettered fire. All this biopic does is bottle that hypercharged charisma in a thin (Albeit accurate) “rags to riches” storyline which sells its subject desperately short. Nevertheless, Jamal Woodlard’s flawless impersonation of the Brooklyn born rapper crackles with an attitude rarely felt ever since Wallace’s death, just about making this groove-by-numbers biopic watchable. In fact, it is certain that Woodlard’s performance that buoyed Notorious to a decent gross of $44 million.
Liner Note: According to his IMDb trivia page (It became desperate), Woodlard had to add over 50 pounds to his already large frame to play The Notorious B.I.G.