Film Review – Straight Outta Compton
Straight Outta Compton
Young talent, dreams of stardom, accelerated rise to fame, sex, drugs, a fall from grace, a saving redemption. The steps of a musical biopic are a tried and true formula, as we’ve witnessed in Walk the Line (2005) and Ray (2004). In that way, F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton (2015) is actually pretty conventional. Charting the story of the hip-hop group N.W.A. in the late eighties and early nineties, Gray (along with screenwriters Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff) injects an enthusiasm and energy that nearly carries this film throughout its two and half-hour time span. Although it does fall for the same clichés and melodramatic overtones that come with the genre, there’s enough here to satisfy the biggest fans and stir the interest of newcomers alike.
Hailing out of Compton, California, the members of N.W.A. – Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Dj Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) – burst onto the scene with an uncompromising lyrical style geared towards their crime riddled neighborhood, and an unwavering mistrust of police enforcement. The subject matter couldn’t be anymore timely, as case after case of police brutality and violent protests represent the same issues N.W.A. helped bring to light over twenty years ago. The Rodney King case is a repeated motif, playing as a not so subtle connection to present events.
The screenplay narrows in on the three main leads: Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy-E. Ice Cube is the lyrical talent, helping to write most of the group’s songs. Dr. Dre is the man behind the music, producing the beats that would define the west coast hip-hop groove. And Eazy-E is the charismatic businessman, putting up his own money to get the group on their feet, and introducing them to Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) who would go on to be their first manager. Sadly, Dj Yella and MC Ren are tagged as mere supporting players with little character development.
The first half is the strongest, as Gray moves through time with an exuberant pace. The members go from high school kids to superstars in no time, rocking sold out shows to fervent crowds. Some of the best visual moments are when Gray swoops his camera above the concert attendees, all moving in unison to the music. It reminds me of the crowd scenes in Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991), encompassing the same kind of bottled lightning just waiting to be let loose. When N.W.A. tells a crowd how they were instructed by authorities not to perform the song “F*k Da Police,” and then performed it anyway, the garnered reaction is a sight to be behold.
Gray shifts gears in the second half, which unfortunately turns out to be less captivating. The focus on police corruption takes a backseat to contract disputes between Ice Cube and the rest of the group. Although there is a funny moment when the four remaining members listen to Ice Cube’s diss track aimed at them, the melodrama of the other sequences suck up the momentum built from the first section. Gray wants to include everything: comedy, drama, and historical detail all into the same story. The balance doesn’t sit well, and because the script tries to stuff as many faces, names, and events in, the lengthy runtime makes its presence felt. Most people who are aware of N.W.A. can probably guess where this will end (involving the fate of Eazy-E), but Gray wants to keep going, diving deeper into the development of “gangsta rap” and its fallout. We can almost sense his temptation to touch on the controversial East Coast/West Coast rivalry (most notably between The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur).
The performances all around are very good. Corey Hawkins provides strong work as Dr. Dre, and Jason Mitchell’s performance as Eazy-E provides both laughs and emotionality as well. R. Marcos Taylor must also be mentioned due to his scary performance as rap mogul Suge Knight. Taylor can illicit intimidation by a mere change in his stare. But it’s O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s role as Ice Cube that impresses the most. His look, the inflection of his voice, and his mannerisms match the real person so well that it was damn near eerie. Come to find out that Jackson is the real life son of Ice Cube – clearly the genes run strong in that family. But it’s not mere nepotism that won Jackson the character. He inhabits his father’s younger self so precisely that I could not see another actor pulling it off so well.
Both the real Ice Cube and Dr. Dre served as producers, and I’m not so sure that was to the benefit of the final product. Yes, it was good to have first hand accounts by the people who lived these lives, but because of their involvement a lot of the history needs to be viewed with a grain of salt. The point of view is skewered in such a way that doesn’t allow the characters to have complete dimension. Whatever wrongdoing occurred only happened as retribution to being wronged themselves. When Ice Cube takes a baseball bat to an executive’s office, it’s because he was cheated out of his royalty money. When Dr. Dre gets pulled over after a high-speed chase, he’s made to be the victim even though he put himself and others in danger. Less favorable aspects are glossed over, such as N.W.A.’s apparent misogyny (there are a number of scenes with dozens of naked women walking around, often for comedic purposes). Even stranger: Dr. Dre’s well publicized arrest for assaulting a female television host is completely ignored. Being historically accurate is not a requirement of a good movie, but in this context it’s worth noting from what perspective this story is being told.
Straight Outta Compton is often times quite entertaining, even if the filmmakers were a little too close to the material. Perhaps a detached eye would have given these characters a more humanistic view, shaping both the positive and negative elements of their personalities. I think the definitive story of N.W.A. is still waiting to be seen, but what we do get is pretty good regardless of that.