One of the writers behind the film “Straight Outta Compton,” about the rise of the L.A. rap group N.W.A., is Seattle-bred Leigh Savidge.
“Straight Outta Compton,” the $29 million biopic about the rise of Los Angeles gangsta-rap innovators N.W.A., had the largest box-office gross in the country last weekend, at $56 million.
That’s fine with Seattle-bred Leigh Savidge, who wrote an early draft of the screenplay and also served as one of its executive producers.
“We may be looking at the most successful film featuring a largely black cast in history,” said Savidge in a recent phone interview.
If that sounds like someone rooting for the underdog, you’re right — up to a point. But some of Savidge’s other views about this film will come as a surprise.
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For one, Savidge said the movie has far more scenes depicting police brutality than he had intended. He also thinks it’s not sympathetic enough to N.W.A. manager Jerry Heller, portrayed by Paul Giamatti as a Machiavellian industry type.
“I’m very happy with the movie and the way it’s rendered,” Savidge hastened to say, “but what happens with biopics is that this is the entertainment business — the studio and the producers are trying to make the most commercially viable product they can.”
Savidge, 57, comes from a prominent family of Seattle car dealers — he is technically S. Leigh Savidge III — who have been here since the 1920s. The third-generation Seattleite grew up in Magnolia, “a proud product of the public-school system in the era of busing,” he said, until his senior year, which he spent at the prestigious Lakeside School. After graduating, he got a communications degree at Boston University, then left for Los Angeles.
There, in 1986, he founded Xenon Pictures, a production and licensing company that started out distributing ’70s “blaxploitation” movies by genre pioneers like Melvin Van Peebles and Rudy Ray Moore.
“I watched as the hip-hop music movement directly affected opportunities for black entertainers,” said Savidge. “I had a front-row seat to what was happening.”
When N.W.A. broke — which made stars out of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E — Savidge immersed himself in hip-hop, first writing and producing the solid, informative 2001 documentary “Welcome to Death Row,” about Death Row Records, founded by Dr. Dre after N.W.A.’s ’80s heyday. (Savidge’s book, also titled “Welcome to Death Row,” serves as a fine companion to the movie.)
“Straight Outta Compton,” which followed, started life as a story about Eazy-E (who died in 1995), his label, Ruthless Records, and Heller, his manager.
“It was primarily a story principally about Eazy-E and his relationship with Jerry Heller, with Ice Cube and Dr. Dre and the other guys as supporting characters,” said Savidge.
But once Dre and Ice Cube came on as producers, Savidge explained, the film changed. Sequences were added about Ice Cube’s 1994 movie, “Friday” and the careers of Dre-assisted rappers Eminem and 50 Cent; even CNN news footage about Dre selling his Beats headphone company to Apple for $3 billion in 2014.
But more important for Savidge, the final cut “dialed up the law-enforcement stuff …(with) much more of an emphasis on the riots and things. My own personal view is that obviously these are important issues, but they’re very nuanced, too.”
Savidge’s views about police brutality may be colored by his friendship with former Seattle police Officer Ernest Hall, who served for over three decades on the force before being fired in August for lying about a misplaced firearm.
“Ernie is my very good friend,” said Savidge. “I’ve been in his squad car many times. and I know what he is as a hero in the Seattle area. We don’t often get the stories of heroism that come out of the law-enforcement community … that gets lost in the noise of what happens in Ferguson, and with Eric Garner and in Charleston. I don’t think you can throw all this stuff in a Cuisinart and say that it’s all the same … [Police brutality] definitely influenced this music, but the larger sociopolitical issue is the limited opportunities for people in the ’hood to transition into a higher economic status. That’s a key undercurrent of this story.”
Savidge said his version of the film was also more sympathetic to Heller, who took 20 percent of Eazy-E’s income.
“If [Heller] is guilty of anything, it’s perhaps not adjusting a business deal that Eazy-E agreed to,” said Savidge, who interviewed Heller extensively. “You have to ask yourself, would David Geffen have adjusted that deal? Would Puffy [Sean Combs] have adjusted that deal? Would Russell Simmons have adjusted that deal? It was 20 off the top … that would have been probably OK if the group hadn’t become so successful.”
Indeed. Money changes everything.
As it flows by the millions into “Straight Outta Compton,” Savidge cautions that while the film is based on a true story, it is still a Hollywood film.
To emphasize his point, Savidge quoted a line about truth and fiction in rap that he’d heard from Allen Gordon, an associate producer on “Welcome to Death Row”: “Even if your story is based on truth, once you add a rhyme to it, you’ve fictionalized it.”