Straight Outta Compton

Release: Friday, August 14, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Jonathan Herman; Andrea Berloff

Directed by: F. Gary Gray

F. Gary Gray’s first directorial outing in six years debuted last weekend to the most successful opening for a musical biopic in cinematic history. Ignoring the 20 years that have elapsed since the tragic passing of N.W.A founder Eazy-E the occasion might not seem auspicious, but for anyone who has been keeping track they would hardly describe the film’s release as straight out of nowhere.

It probably would help make an already solid production even more absorbing if I weren’t so ignorant to the history and culture this iconic group were simultaneously being molded by and molding themselves. To me, Gray’s latest seemed like a random and trivial release. That’s why it has taken me a week to get to it. And though it still feels more random than commemorative there’s very little about its raw power and dynamic beat that feels trivial. Straight Outta Compton is a very good film, made so by the fact that you don’t need to dig hip hop to appreciate the gravity of this story.

Its total run time of two and a half hours at first seems daunting — ultimately it is a little too long — but the number of scenes in which checking one’s phone is tempting is kept to a surprising minimum. Like N.W.A in the prime of their hard-hitting and layered lyricism, the narrative is a well-oiled machine, boasting fluid pacing, lasting momentum and confident direction. More importantly, since there will be far more than gangsta rap fans in attendance, the chronicle is straightforward and digestible, navigating the tumultuous formative years through to the crescendo of success and ending, as many musical biopics do, on a bittersweet note as the group fragments.

Compton requires a modicum of patience, particularly in the opening third where Gray takes his time developing by-now highly recognizable personalities in the form of Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (played by his real-life son O’Shea Jackson Jr.), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.). Interestingly Arabian Prince, despite having a role in the formation of the group, was deemed too much of a peripheral character to warrant inclusion. The opening sequence sees Eazy-E flirting with death during a chaotic police raid on a drug den, a nod toward an alternative future a few of these young men might have faced were it not for the forthcoming tête-à-tête shared between E and Dre in a night club, the same club in which the latter had been struggling for some time to get himself recognized as a DJ/producer.

It’s not long before the pair are able to spin an argument that will convince Cube to leave his current group, C.I.A., as well as the high-spirited DJ Yella and loyal MC Ren to offer their talents to this mix of raw, surprisingly focused talent. A rudimentary sound studio becomes quickly filled with groupies and curious listeners. And then E is approached by music manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), with whom the rapper co-founds their first label, Ruthless Records. The rest, as they say, is history.

Giamatti could have been the x-factor in Compton as his celebrity status, despite his affinity for disappearing into his roles, flagged up a potential distraction. But once more he pulls a Houdini, seemingly comfortable with a striking wave of white hair and that glint in his eye that gives us pause for concern whether he is a man to be fully trusted. You can almost picture an honorary gold chain necklace draped around his neck but fortunately this is not a movie built upon stereotype or offensive fabrication (despite the real Heller’s reactions to his portrayal).

There is a caveat to that, though. Or, I guess a second. The biopic isn’t immune to all forms of stereotype; that it focuses so intensely on the group (read: the trio of E, Cube and Dre) means there are casualties of Gray’s fixations. Women — special shout-out to Felicia! — fare worse than the police, coming in droves, forming the requisite mise-en-scene once the group starts stockpiling dollar bills faster than ideas for potentially future hit singles. But given the lyrical content of much of N.W.A’s work, is the visible misogyny all that shocking?

This could be controversial, but I argue that the harmony between Compton‘s scantily clad extras and Cube’s verve for undressing and (swear-word)ing them umpteen to the dozen doesn’t quite ring alarm bells like the racial tensions that ever more define the thrust of the narrative. A well-timed insertion of footage of the Rodney King beating and subsequent fall-out inspire outrage, an outrage that strengthens our bond with these characters. If N.W.A’s personal experiences with the hostile LAPD didn’t create a united front then this disturbing news reel is the insurance Gray needed. The acquittal of the officers on obvious charges — abuse of power and excessive force, the mechanism that drove songs like ‘F**k Tha Police’ and ‘Gangsta Gangsta’ — signals a low point in the sociopolitical climate specific to the film and the decade it damns in its final act.

Compton is consistently compelling, becoming a party as quickly as it turns ugly, examining extraordinary lives in perpetual transition. While it’s not always fun to watch it is important and the three-act structure serves the material well. The voices of Compton needed more microphones, a bigger stage. In Gray’s testament to the power of music they get both.

Recommendation: Straight Outta Compton is a very well-acted and confidently directed tale that serves its unique subject well. It’s a testament to the quality of Gray’s direction that it remains a highly involving story even when knowing next to none of the lyrics that have popularized N.W.A since 1986. I highly recommend giving this a watch on the big screen as these personalities, as influential as they have been, somehow feel even larger than life in this format.

Rated: R

Running Time: 147 mins.

Quoted: “Speak a little truth and people lose their minds.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

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23 thoughts on “Straight Outta Compton

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  2. One of those films where the more knowledgeable you are about this subject, the less honest the movie becomes. As a piece of entertainment, however, it’s very good

    • Yes it is. I actually went on your recommendation, you describing it more as a history lesson than a film about a bunch of concert footage and partying. While there was a bit of the latter it was most definitely an education. Even if F. Gary Gray may have tweaked some things for the betterment of a mass audience. I really really enjoyed it though. Glad I decided to go in the end. 🙂

  3. Like many others I too am not familiar with the N.W.A, except for that one song, ”F**k the Police” which gets me only more interested in seeing it. Great post as always, Tom!

    • Thanks man, I actually did what I sometimes am guilty of doing too often — I listened to their debut album while trying to come up with something to say about the movie. I wish I had heard it beforehand. I think if I were a fan I would have liked this film even more, might have garnered a perfect score. Still, it’s a great turn by the young performers and the director. A great surprise.

      • I’m starting to feel the same way.
        F. Gary Gray is a great director, I loved The Negotiator and I don’t mind Italian Job either. Heard only good things about the youngsters.

  4. Fine review Tom. I’ve been curious about this especially after reading the reviews. It seems like many of those positive reviews even point out the strategic ommisions of facts that would have tarnished the producer’s (Dre, Cube, Easy E’s widow) carefully protected legacies. Still I remember when they hit the scene. That is the part that interests me, probably more so then when they get into the later days.

    • It proved a great education for me. The rise to fame and popularity is as exciting as the gut-wrenching reality that had driven them to breaking out. And the final third, as a come-down, is still packed with memorable moments. I was really surprised this came out to be so good. Good for F. Gary Gray, making a return after six years.

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  6. I’m gutted that I missed the press screening for this. I’m not familiar w/ N.W.A at all but I’m curious to check this out. Nice to hear you enjoyed this Tom, and that this was well-acted. The last F. Gary Gray film I saw was Law Abiding Citizen which I thought was decent though far from flawless. I’ll rent this one for sure.

    • Wow I have completely forgotten about Law Abiding Citizen. I think there were some good parts in it that I liked; Gerard Butler at least wasn’t doing the rom-com thing! 🙂 But yeah, this one is a step above for sure. I hope you like what you see!

  7. Smart review Tom. Like this a lot. The dearth of biopics about black characters is rather endemic of the industry as a whole. Can’t say I was too knowledgeable about NWA, which is why I really wanna see this.

    • Great point Mark. Musical biopics are actually pretty prevalent but I cannot remember the last time I’ve seen one focusing on a black group or a rap group for that matter. Straight Outta Compton sets the bar high for future films. It’s solid, please do check it out!

    • I would recommend it. 🙂 I really appreciated how one doesn’t need to be a fan to enjoy what the film is ultimately about. I’m sure it helps make it an even deeper experience though.

  8. This is a great review! I feel so ignorant about these kinds of movies because this style of music was never a big part of my life. My husbands says I must have grown up in a bubble because I don’t know about N.W.A., Easy-E or any of these songs but I do appreciate the story and I think this tells a great one.

    • Thanks kindly Mel. 🙂

      To be honest rap, hip hop and R&B rarely make it into my playlist (though unfortunately I’m guilty of getting stuck listening to the same playlists over and over again, esp while I’m writing reviews lol), but this is a film that sets the story of the people above the music and the movie is much better for it. I learned quite a lot about this group and their environment. Not always an easy watch but it’s essential viewing for people who think these guys were just “glorifying” the gangster lifestyle.

    • Thanks for your comment! I would watch a series if it were created, though as a single film this felt like it dragged a bit towards the end. That’s of course not suggesting the film got weaker but I, personally, started feeling the run time at the end. A great film to be sure, though.

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