Release: Friday, August 14, 2015
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.
Running Time: 147 mins.
Quoted: “Speak a little truth and people lose their minds.”
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