Straight Outta Compton (2015) / Drama-Music
MPAA Rated: R for language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence, and drug use
Running Time: 147 min.
Cast: Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, O'Shea Jackson Jr., Paul Giamatti, R. Marcos Taylor, Neil Brown Jr. Aldis Hodge
Cameo: F. Gary Gray
Director: F. Gary Gray
Screenplay: Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff
Review published August 16, 2015
Straight Outta Compton is a Hollywood biopic of pioneering West Coast hip-hop crew N.W.A., covering the seeds of their creation from the street of Compton, California, to the rise of their success, their break-ups, and their make-ups. Their popularity send shockwaves through a music industry that are still being felt today, as ''reality rap' (billed in the media as 'gangsta rap') would tell the tales of what the young men saw every day living as teenagers out in the streets of South Central Los Angeles, full of drug dealers, gang-bangers, and cops that habitually harass them just because of their appearance. The title comes from N.W.A.'s hip-hop masterpiece of the same name, propelling such members as Ice Cube and Dr. Dre into lucrative solo careers, with the former taking his charisma into the world of movies, and the latter becoming a top-flight record producer and entrepreneur of the world's most popular audio products line.
Directed by F. Gary Gray, who directed Ice Cube in Friday and Giamatti in The Negotiator, Straight Outta Compton gives us the basic origins of the group's three most well-known members, Dre (Hawkins, Non-Stop), Cube, and Eazy-E (Mitchell, Contraband), the latter of whom would turn some of the money he accrued while drug-dealing into launching his own record label, Ruthless Records, and made it a local success. Their radio buzz puts them on the radar of music talent manager Jerry Heller (Giamatti, San Andreas), who impresses on them that he has the chops in the business to take them to the next level of success, securing a record deal to give them national distribution, but also perhaps led to their eventual break-up, as contracts are signed but money never seems to flow in ways that smack of fairness. From there, the biopic deals with the group's controversy, particularly in their impassioned call to rise up against police brutality in "F--- Tha Police", as well as their lyrics that are called out for glamorizing the gangster lifestyle to their predominantly young listeners. Other threads include Cube's leaving the group to go solo, Dre eventually doing the same after one more album (from the frying pan to the fire of Los Angeles thug mogul Suge Knight), and Eazy-E's contraction of AIDS, which would take his life before a proposed reunion of the group, this time on their own terms, could take place.
One of the major strengths of Straight Outta Compton comes from its casting. Portraying Ice Cube is none other than his very own son, O'Shea Jackson Jr., who not only looks a great deal like his father, but does a phenomenal acting performance above and beyond just capturing his father's looks, swagger, and mannerisms. Corey Hawkins captures Dr. Dre's look and cool demeanor, and though the actor does fall short of delivering in a couple of scenes that ask a good deal out of him emotionally, Hawkins does very well in all other respects to earn kudos for the role. However, the heart of the film's emotional beats comes through an excellent Jason Mitchell as Eric "Eazy-E" Wright, who definitely comes through big in his performance as the member of the crew that experiences the lowest lows in their story. The two men who play Ren (Hodge, A Good Day to Die Hard) and Yella (Brown Jr., Battle Los Angeles) are also good, but they aren't the film's focus, and neither should they be, really, but it's nice to see that they do get included enough in the scenes to signify their involvement in the creative process. Paul Giamatti gets his second turn in 2015 to play a slime-ball handler of music talent, after the Brian Wilson biopic, Love and Mercy, but there's no one who plays conniving weasels with as much surprisingly rounded qualities as Giamatti, which sometimes makes you question whether he is indeed trying to do right but are misunderstood, even when they're bleeding his talent dry through contracts they sign without fully understanding.
N.W.A's trajectory is messy and fragmented, and not at all the kind of thing that lends well to the traditional arc of a musical biopic, so respect must be given to director Gray for making the movie feel rich and compelling as a collection of the crew's milestones and pitfalls, especially as most of those involved in the scene are still alive to see the film and decry it if it isn't on the up and up. Of course that also means that the movie likely overlooks some of the more unsavory of foible of the depicted rappers, but it also doesn't turn a blind eye to them either, as scenes of partying, carousing, drug use, and violent altercations are also shown, even if those things are often framed with the main players as the heroes of those situations. It may not be reality, but within the context of this Hollywood biopic, it still feels right, which will suffice as far as keeping it respectably on point.
Scenes of the group coming up with their music in the studio, and their energetic concert performances are electrifying, and spotlight the verve and power of the mix of Ice Cube and company's potent lyricism, especially when set to Dre's thunderously potent, funk-infused production. There are also good bits between the crew and Jerry Heller that makes you question the whether he's truly necessary for making the connections needed for their fame, or if he's merely a parasitic svengali, who only wants them to succeed to fill his own coffers. Interestingly, Heller has managed Dr. Dre while he was with the World Class Wreckin' Cru and Ice Cube in his previous group, C.I.A. before managing N.W.A., as well as other Los Angeles-based hop hop acts like Egyptian Lover and the LA Dream Team, so there is some fudging of the timeline for narrative story purposes in the film, which makes it seem like he met everyone through Eazy-E, and this was his first handling of a rap act.
It's not all strong, as typical biopic clichés do emerge from time to time, and the tale seems to increasingly lose focus once the five original members are no longer together, devolving into a collection of splintered scenes that aren't as compelling as the depiction of their drive to rise to the top of the rap industry. If not for the critical depiction of Eazy-E's illness and death, perhaps the film would have ended much sooner, but it's the movie's most poignant element, so it merits inclusion. Besides, by this point of the film, we like watching these men enough to be curious to see where things lead, even if the music aspect of their careers falls by the wayside. Real-life footage of the crew in their early days all the way up until today leaves the story on a high note, and does remind us, once again, of how far-reaching the influence of the group's influence has extended all the way to those rappers currently on the top of the industry charts.
At 2.5 hours, it's a lengthy film, and one does get the sense that Gray probably filmed so much more that he had to trim down (reportedly, his first cut was an hour longer), especially in relationship to the family lives of the group members, who seem to disappear just as soon as they appear. Because of the short-lived nature of the group, and how popular Ice Cube and Dr. Dre would continue to become once leaving, it's understandable why the post-N.W.A. years would be included in a biopic, even if it does often feel like the proverbial egg that, once broken, can't be pieced back whole again, no matter how hard they try to give it the right shape. Nevertheless, for a collection of compelling scenes, and for capturing the ferocity, talent, and vision of this influential music act, as well as in delivering some good performances and robust excitement for their music, Straight Outta Compton does manage to capture enough of that lighting into its bottle to be the best hip-hop drama from a major studio since Hustle & Flow.
©2015 Vince Leo