Straight Outta Compton Review: Powerful, Provocative, And Simply Magnificent
Music biopics usually have a standard formula they follow. The audience sees the very beginning, usually a down on his luck character or characters who get that big break; the meteoric rise, with the excesses that come with it; the squabbles and infighting that causes rifts, usually over money or the hard price of fame; and then the downfall, when the music takes a backseat to real life. If we’re lucky, we also get some kind of uplifting recalcitrance to make us feel like we really got to know the musician or musicians during the film’s run time.
F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton follows this formula as well, but the biggest difference here is in how Gray ties N.W.A.’s rise and fall to real world events during the late 80s and early 90s, and then subtly ties it to the same issues plaguing the nation today, all while shining a very bright light on one of the most influential rap acts in history — and the key players that went on to change music forever. The end result is that Straight Outta Compton is Gray’s cinematic masterpiece, and one of the very best films of 2015.
Straight Outta Compton opens in 1987 with a young Eric Wright (Jason Mitchell) in a drug deal that goes bad. Director F. Gary Gray uses this scene to set the stage that Compton in the late 80s was a terrible place, and after introducing “Eazy E,” we meet Andre Young, (Corey Hawkins), who relishes the sounds coming from his record collection, feeling each note, and every movement change. His mother demands for him to get a job or get out, so young Dre packs up his records and piles into his car, taking time to say goodbye to his younger brother. Next, we’re introduced to O’Shea Jackson (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) and see what it’s like going to school in Compton, and that not even school buses are immune to the gang warfare that divides the streets — and the cultures — of South Central Los Angeles. These three real-life artists come together with a common bond of music and realistic rhymes that tell the story of their lives on these streets in this small city south of the 105.
Soon, each young man: Eazy E, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube, along with friends and equally-talented artists DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), are forged through the hard crucible of LAPD harassment and the gangs, and together they create something special. Dre convinces E to invest some of his hustling money into putting together a record, and a label, and Ruthless Records is born. The five young men — with Cube’s lyrics and Dre’s beats, with E on vocals, cut the now-classic, “Boyz n The Hood” — and the pathway out of Compton opens up in the guise of manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). And just like that, the ball begins to roll on the triumph and tragedy that will play itself out in the eight years that Straight Outta Compton covers.
In those eight years, we see the band rise to incredible heights, where even the FBI is investigating them due to the song “F— Tha Police,” which law enforcement sees as a veiled threat. The success brings money, fast cars, luxurious homes, and girls. Always girls. But Heller’s management deal with Eazy E doesn’t sit well with Cube, who leaves the band and branches out on his own, which begins the end of N.W.A.
Gray and screenwriters Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, based off a story by S. Leigh Savidge, Alan Wenkus, and Berloff, could have easily pinned the fall of N.W.A. of Heller’s shoulders, due to his reported cooking of Ruthless’ books. But instead, they lead the audience down another path, where many outside forces caused this group to disband, and ultimately, make amends before Eazy E’s death from complications due to AIDS in 1995. These forces include the meddling of one-time Bobby Brown bodyguard-turned-music-mogul Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor), who rips Dre away to start Death Row records. Ice Cube goes on to solo success with Lynch Mob, and then Hollywood. And Eazy E and Heller finally have it out over the lost funds, as E loses his father figure and mentor.
We see the formations of the foundations of west coast hip hop, and there are cameos aplenty of the various performers that made this music so revered to the rest of the country. In the screening I attended, every time Suge Knight was on-screen, the audience fell dead silent, afraid of the monster that Suge Knight is in real life (he is currently on trial for killing a man during the filming of the movie — you can’t make this up). There are light-hearted scenes that really showed that these five men — brothers — cared for one another and were fans of each other, even when things went bad between them. Again, this is F. Gary Gray choosing story over cliche, real life over rumor.
In the end, N.W.A will always be remembered not only as pioneers of an entire genre of music, but as voices — storytellers — to a world that many outside of Compton never see and will never know. And Straight Outta Compton uses this story, these eight years, to present the racial divide between Darryl Gates’ LAPD and minorities in L.A. As the story unfolds, the back drop of the Rodney King beating and subsequent trial and then riots, mimic and resonate the band’s break up and inner turmoil. And while this was 20-years ago, the audience couldn’t help but see and feel that the same issues are happening today with Michael Brown and Eric Garner and every other young black person who has lost their lives at the hands of corrupt, lawless, cowardly police officers. It’s deep stuff, and Gray doesn’t hit the audience over the head with it. It’s there, and is explored, but it still takes a back seat to the greater story of the rise and fall of N.W.A.
Straight Outta Compton is a powerful movie that does so much in its 147 minute run time. But it’s not without fault. There’s not a single strong female character in the movie, and in fact, most are written just like they are presented in Ice Cube’s early raps. In the beginning of the film the LAPD are shown in the same light as Nazis, which works to coincide with Cube’s lyrics, but comes off as a little over the top. And I’m not saying that these things didn’t happen. Where I grew up, I saw it every day. And I was 2,000 miles from Compton. I get it. But it still adds a layer of clowning in a movie that get so much right.
And much needs to be said about the individual performances. Hawkins’ Dre begins the film as a young, almost naive DJ who loves music, but by the end of the film, the industry has turned him hard and incredibly smart, and Hawkins nails it. Jackson, Jr.’s portrayal of his father is simply uncanny — in looks and sound. He pulls it off with aplomb. But the real highlight here is Mitchell’s E, who is the crux of the story, and has to carry the weight of all that happens, for good or bad. I wasn’t familiar with Jason Mitchell before, but he, along with Corey Hawkins and O’Shea Jackson, Jr. are all on my radar to watch out for.
In the end, Straight Outta Compton is the story of a group of friends who started a band, and changed the world. That’s not a tag line to sell movie tickets, its the truth. And to see where is the music industry has come since the days of N.W.A, just look at the recent beef between Drake and Meek Mill. Today they are trading diss tracks back and forth, but when Cube and the rest of N.W.A. did it, it meant something. It was real. And even as each party aired their dirty laundry in public, they still had respect for each other. There’s a good portion of readers who will have no idea who the hell Meek Mill even is, and probably only know Drake because if his Sprite commercials, or his stint on DeGrassi Junior High. That’s the music industry today. All flash, and no substance. Make no mistake. These five guys who got out of Compton, they had substance. And they still do. Just listen to Dr. Dre’s new release, Compton. After all this time, the fire is still there and it puts everyone else to shame.
Straight Outta Compton is not only one of the best music biopics I’ve ever seen, it’s also one of the best movies. There is truth here. There is magic here. And as I said, this is F. Gary Gray’s masterpiece. This is a movie that will serve as a history lesson to a musical movement that changed the world, for good or bad. It has stellar performances from all involved, and, of course, a killer soundtrack. Even if you don’t care for hip hop, there is something important happening here, and well worth seeing, sheerly for the history alone. I can’t wait to see this film again and again.
Straight Outta Compton is rated R and is in theaters now.
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