Review: Straight Outta Compton
PLOT: The rise and fall of one of hip hop's most controversial and powerful groups, N.W.A.; the film examines the forceful music that made them so popular, while also detailing the ego-driven issues that tore them apart.
REVIEW: One wouldn't necessarily expect the story of hip hop's most controversial - and successful - groups to have a very familiar "rise and fall" music biopic narrative, but life is funny that way; sometimes the story is always the same, no matter the players. That doesn't make STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON - the story of the formation, success and disbandment of N.W.A. (you can look it up if you don't already know) - any less engaging or powerful. If anything, it will make it more relatable to sections of the audience who won't necessarily be inclined to immerse themselves in the lives of men known for songs like "F*ck Tha Police" and "Gangsta Gangsta."
It helps that the movie is incredibly entertaining. Director F. Gary Gray has constructed a 146 minute epic that never drags or loses its palpable intensity, revolving around tough men who prove to be just as vulnerable, prone to mistakes, and dependent on friendship as the average joe. The fiery passion that made N.W.A's music so provocative emanates off the screen; this could be thanks to the fact key members of the group were heavily involved in the film, hence its overall atmosphere of gritty authenticity.
The film charts the coming-together of N.W.A's founding members in exciting style; we meet them all separately at first, and though it may be easy to assume the young men were all similar because of their locale and social status (growing up in 80s South Central was akin to living in a war zone), each proves to be very different. Eric "Eazy-E" Wright (Jason Mitchell) is a low-level drug dealer, barely surviving a drug deal and police raid when we first meet him in an electric sequence. Andre "Dr. Dre" Young (Corey Hawkins) is a mellow music-fiend, determined to eschew a blue collar life in pursuit of his dream: to be a top tier DJ and music producer. O'Shea "Ice Cube" Jackson (O'Shea Jackson, Jr.) is a scowling lyricist tired of being harassed by both the police and the neighborhood gangs; L.A. was the epicenter of Bloods and Crips violence and a day without a nearby gunshot or pat-down is like a miracle. The three come together thanks to Dre's vision of forming a incendiary rap group unlike any other. Eazy-E's drug money provides the means to book a studio, while Cube's rhymes and Dre's beats lay the foundation of what will become a revelation. (The movie doesn't make much room for other founding members, MC Ren and DJ Yella, whose contributions to the music were just as important, but it's possible their personalities just weren't quite as large as the main trio.)
With a sound unlike any other on the west coast, N.W.A. makes a major impression. Quickly, the group is recognized by famed music manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who takes a shine to Eazy-E's business acumen and inserts himself into N.W.A as their handler. Heller and E's alignment quickly spells trouble for the rising group, as neither seem eager to share the profits that come rolling in as they go on tour. Still, their presence on pop culture is heavily felt, with their dispatches from the streets building them an impassioned fanbase among America's youth while creating alarm among conservative middle America. "F*ck Tha Police" understandably makes them the country's most contentious musical act, and a performance in Detroit where they're arrested for playing the song (after being explicitly told not to) solidifies them as both rebels and agitators.
The film's second half, where N.W.A.'s popularity naturally leads to infighting, resentment and eventual separation, is perhaps a little more conventional than what came before it, and as lengthy as the movie is, sometimes it feels like it's rushing. Screenwriters Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff seem like they don't want to leave any of the big moments out, and as a result the film's final stretch begins to resemble a greatest hits compilation as opposed to an organic final act of a story. (Recognizable collaborators like Snoop Dogg and Tupac show up, but their appearances are perfunctory rather than essential.) We've seen plenty of biopics tread the same terrain; even the concluding passages, in which the gang gets back together for E's tragic death, feel somewhat routine.
Still, STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON is undeniably a robust work, with certain scenes - most of them focused on the music - proving to be instant classics: Cube's first performance at a club, where he immediately galvanizes the crowd; the show-stopping Detroit show; the sequence in which Eazy-E, at first just the money man, proves to be a natural at rapping, only after a difficult (and hilarious) session where Dre must coach him; the recording of Ice Cube's furious "No Vaseline" - Cube's notorious diss track aimed at his former friends after he's left the group - is as stunning as the reaction from N.W.A. and Heller is amusingly awkward. COMPTON truly shines when it's keeping its mind on the art.
The performances are all very solid. As Eazy-E, Mitchell steals the show. While the movie isn't always kind to the dead man's legacy (Dre and Cube oversaw this film, after all), there's no question it's also just as eager to view him sympathetically, and Mitchell nails the many sides to the character: He's sly but tough, untrustworthy yet likable, dishonest yet not without a code. O'Shea Jackson, Jr., spitting image of his father, simply is Ice Cube. While it's easy to think of Cube as the funny and lovable comedian he's transformed into, Jackson, Jr. lets us remember just how intimidating of a personality he once was; it's utterly uncanny. Hawkins doesn't quite make the impression the other two do, but he makes an impression as the more subtle, introspective member of the group (at least, subtle and introspective for this group). Finally, Giamatti is reliably magnetic as Heller, theman who swindled the group while maintaining a paternal aura. Not unlike E, the movie throws a lot of blame Heller's way, but also doesn't demonize him, allowing the character a few real moments of pathos.
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