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Why It Works: Straight Outta Compton

03.31.2017

Why It Works is an ongoing column which breaks down some of the most acclaimed films in history and explores what makes them so iconic, groundbreaking, and memorable.

****SPOILERS AHEAD****

When I first heard an N.W.A. biopic was in the works, I thought it was a cool idea, but I wasn't really sure what to expect. What I definitely didn't expect was a sleek, almost three hour drama that would become the highest grossing musical biopic of all time and earn an Academy Award nomination for best screenplay. With veteran director F. Gary Gray at the helm, STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON tells the difficult, dark, entertaining, gripping, and often funny story of N.W.A. from humble beginnings and triumphant high points all the way to the tragic end. Here's why it works:

WHY WE LIKE THE CHARACTERS:

STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON opens with Eric "Eazy-E" Wright running from a tense drug deal as the police raid the property. As he clambers over the Compton rooftops and the title screen smashes into view, we know we're not just dealing with a docudrama about some kids who got together and started a band. This is Compton in the 80's, and this biopic is more GOODFELLAS than WALK THE LINE. Juxtaposed against E's life on the edge is Andre "Dr. Dre" Young, who just wants to pursue his passion for music, even if it means leaving the comfort of his mother's house and staying on couches until he breaks out. Similarly, O'Shea "Ice Cube" Jackson is still in high school, working hard at writing lyrics and dreaming of a bright future. All three of the film's leads are intelligent, talented, charming, and willing to work their asses off to make it, so it doesn't take much for us as an audience to root for their success. Collectively, E, Dre, and Cube (along with DJ Yella and MC Ren) are N.W.A., a band greater than the sum of its parts. N.W.A. wants fame and fortune, sure, but they also want to represent the common man, question authority, and give their audience a release for the stress of the universal struggle.

Dre is listening to Roy Ayers' "Everybody Loves The Sunshine" here. You should be, too.

The other nice thing about the characters here is that they are complicated. Any of our three heroes might fly off the handle at any point, but we always understand their point of view. Certainly the clearest example of this volatility is in Jerry Heller, N.W.A.'s manager. Jerry captures our hearts by being an old white guy who loves the band and will do anything to support them, including standing up to authority in their defense, but there's more going on behind the scenes. It comes to light late in the film (though it's hinted at multiple times throughout) that Jerry has been embezzling money from the company for years, and so we, like Eric, find ourselves gut-punched by a character we hoped we could trust.

If you haven't seen the Jerry Heller-centric, whitewashed parody SOC trailer, make it happen.

WHY WE CARE:

With a director's cut clocking in at 2 hours and 46 minutes, STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON has quite a task to keep our attention for the duration of the film. For starters, the story constantly moves; instead of following the group until they finally get famous, they reach the top of their game within the first hour of the film, with plenty of story left to tell. The film never loses its emotional thread, from the drama of the protagonists' domestic lives to the brotherhood of the group to the ongoing question of trust and finally, to Eric's untimely death. What's more is the fact that each individual scene stands on its own. The drama feels honest, the concerts and action are exciting, and the administrative side of things doesn't feel bogged down and bureaucratic (enter Cube with a baseball bat). Finally, perhaps the biggest key to keeping a film of this length intriguing is the fact that as our heroes get more famous and wealthy, so too do their lives become more dangerous and tense. Where early on we have Dre missing a job interview and harmless police shakedowns, by the end we have lawsuits, beat downs, guns, arrests, hospitals, the LA riots, and pretty much every Suge Knight scene.

One of two times in the film Cube acts unfavorably toward a Brian or Bryan. I'll keep my distance.

WHY WE'RE SATISFIED:

Structurally speaking, STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON plays more like a romance film than a biopic. Hear me out. It starts with friends deciding to become something more, then, when things seems perfect, something happens which pulls them apart; they fight but miss each other, and finally, they reconcile, but tragedy strikes, and the survivors are forced to move on while being thankful for being able to have had that time together. Of course, the story of N.W.A. ends with the death of Eazy-E, which may leave us with a bitter taste as the credits roll, but the real resolution here lies in the reconciliation of three brothers, who after a long and bumpy ride, still have nothing but undying love for one another.

RIP, E.

WHY WE REMEMBER:

Of course, with any biopic, there's the question of what really happened. Yes, there are some unseemly events left out of the story, and some or the key players feel they were misrepresented, but that's not what we're here to discuss; as much as possible, a film should be considered in and of itself (especially in a column dedicated to breaking down the craft of filmmaking). That said, anyone who was around for the late 80's / early 90's era of West Coast hip hop will appreciate hearing some old standards as well as the character cameos of Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur, Warren G, Chuck D, Jimmy Iovine, and even a brilliant "bye, Felicia" callback to FRIDAY (also directed by F. Gary Gray). STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON weaves between drama, comedy, action, glamour, grit, and fantasy from moment to moment, and Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff's script balances these genres with ease, as do Gray's directing style and Matthew Libatique's cinematography, both of which range from dark and intimate to bright and larger than life (with some great single take shots along the way).

F*ck tha police.

O'Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, and Jason Mitchell make the perfect Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy-E (Jackson's resemblance to papa Cube is ridiculous), and Paul Giamatti, Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge, Marlon Yates Jr., Carra Patterson, Alexandra Shipp, Elena Goode, Lisa Renee Pitts, Lakeith Stanfield, and R. Marcos Taylor make for an impressive supporting cast. Needless to say, this movie would be nothing without the music, and so we get a generous helping of N.W.A.'s greatest hits, both as backing tracks and full-on performances, as well as classic funk, hip hop, R&B, and Joseph Trapanese's masterful score to fill in the rest. N.W.A. changed the face of the hip hop scene, stood up to the oppressive and corrupt, gave a voice to the disadvantaged, and made some damn fine music along the way, and STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON serves as a reverent tribute to their legacy.

Thoughts? What else worked for you? What didn't? Strike back below!

If you have any movies you'd like to see put under the microscope, let us know below or send me an email at brianbitner@joblo.com.

Source: JoBlo.com

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