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|Straight Outta Compton
by Brett Gallman
For about half its runtime, âStraight Outta Comptonâ positions itself as a vital movie of the moment. Released in the shadow of Ferguson and Baltimore, it threatens to be more than a standard issue biopic charting NWAâs meteoric rise to fame by capturing a zeitgeist that continues to resonate nearly 30 years later before lapsing into a victory lap.But until it grows complacent, the film roars with the same fire that thrust NWA into the national consciousness in the late 80s. Director F. Gary Gray captures the searing scene that produced the super-group: Compton rests in the shadow of shoestrings dangling on power lines (an apocryphal shorthand to indicate gang activity) as police sirens wail with menace. Caught in between are OâShea âIce Cubeâ Jackson (OâShea Jackson, Jr.) and Andre âDr. Dreâ Young (Corey Hawkins), a couple of young, aspiring rappers who rope mutual friend Eric âEazy Eâ Wright (Jason Mitchell) into funding their latest venture. While in the studio, the trioâalong with MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.)âproduces something like alchemy, as Cubeâs raw lyrics and Eazyâs even more raw delivery reflect a fresh voice, one thatâs otherwise been suppressed at the bootheels of crooked, racist cops and institutionalized poverty.
Unsurprisingly, the groupâs rise to stardom is haunted by sirens cast in the perpetual glow of red and blue patrol lights. Even when granted the guise of legitimacy by talent agent Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti, whose portentous smile seems coaxed by snake-oil), the quintet is subject to humiliating (and unconstitutional) searches on the grounds of simply daring to be young black men standing in the streets. Watching it now implicitly draws parallels to the similarly appalling scenes that continue to play out decades later, so thereâs an immediate, confrontational urgency to âStraight Outta Compton.â
Because the events depicted are hardly distant echoes, they leap off of the screen with the same incendiary beat they carried when they occurred. Gray taps into this effusive energy by hitching a ride to NWAâs whirlwind support of their debut album, which begins to feel less like a tour and more like a revolution. Personal triumphs and tragedies intertwine but feel secondary to a larger movement that doesnât just transform the group into voices of their generation: theyâre suddenly avatars representing the power of art to transcend and transgress societal norms and expectations, including the systemic racism that inspires thousands of concert-goers to shout âfuck tha police!â in defiant unison.
âStraight Outta Comptonâ isnât just the cinematic equivalent of a boast trackâitâs a thrilling act of rebellion, one with a finger on the pulse of a social issue thatâs as relevant now as it was in 1989, if not more so. In an era long before social networking was even a thought, these dispatches from NWA were stoking fires and acting as cultural reporting. The front lines ranged from the streets these boys had to cross simply to go home to a Detroit concert being monitored by cops looking for any excuse to shut down a message that still rings true.
You can practically pinpoint the moment it begins to deflate, thoughâjust keep an ear out for the unsubtle discord surrounding the bandâs contractsâand snap into a âBehind the Musicâ recitation of facts and historical drama. As a group, NWA burned fast and bright, releasing only one album with its original lineup, and you almost wish this biopic followed suit. The first half reflects the passion of a young, hungry group willing to push limits and break barriers; the second feels like the product of a self-satisfied band prepping a Greatest Hits album.
And so âStraight Outta Comptonâ obliges with a collection of diffuse moments, many of them out of the feel-good, fan-service mold. Thereâs Ice Cube recording a diss track in retaliation to his former bandmatesâ labelling him Benedict Arnold in their second album. Hereâs Dr. Dre discovering a young rapper who calls himself Snoop. âYou just got knocked the fuck out!â Cube exclaims as he reads aloud a line from his screenplay for âFriday.â The opening hook of âCalifornia Loveâ blasts through a recording booth to the delight of some guy named Tupac Shakur (Marcc Roseâs impression is so dead on that I briefly considered that maybe âPac has been faking his death all these years). These arenât stories so much as theyâre shout-outs or cinematic Easter egg hunts where the treasureâs been left in plain sight.
The throughline here is the sort of formula that sinks so many bands: soured relationships, contract disputes, conniving managers, and poor judgment. While Cube sort of floats in and out of the narrative here, both Eazy and Dre contend with managerial squabbles: where Heller is painted as a stock villain during the back half (despite Giamatti infusing him with equal amounts decency and sleaze throughout), Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) is a Lucerferian interloper, a sinister tempter who lures Dre away from Heller only to further exploit him. It's compelling in the way tabloids beg to be read, but the material is often only mined for big, overblown scenes captured in close-up that only stick to that level of gossipy journalism. âStraight Outta Comptonâ breathlessly reveals what happened without bothering to truly understand or comment on it.
Had a sense of introspection accompanied the second halfâs shift in tone and pace, âStraight Outta Comptonâ may have justified its all-encompassing scope. To its credit, the film (produced by Cube, Dre, and Eazyâs widow, Tomica Woods-Wright) doesnât shy away from the bandâs seedier behavior, particularly towards women that range from disposable to dutiful girlfriends or wives. One especially raucous scene in a hotel room swarms with naked women and handguns during an intense showdown that brands NWA as hellraisers when it comes off as reckless and silly (but, to be fair, this is exactly how rock bands have been depicted since time immemorial).
Along with indicting corrupt cops and celebrating its heroes, âStraight Outta Comptonâ feigns some interest in the toxic masculinity that thrived during (if not guided) this era. Escalating from goofy diss tracks to Knightâs inexplicable tendency towards brutal violence, it metastasized in the destructive East Coast-West Coast hip hop feud briefly glimpsed here, another moment that at least feels like an acknowledgement of these unseemly exploits.
But it would be nice to gather some sense of how these men think and feel about them after several years of reflection, especially since the film is otherwise hyper-aware of how important their music was. Only occasionally does the film rekindle its early fire, with the most notable moment occurring during a montage set in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict. As the streets of their hometown are wrecked with violence, the three leads roll through the carnage almost wistfullyâthey almost feel like conquering heroes marveling at how far theyâve come when the film should be more concerned with exploring how far we haven't come in the last two decades. The film at least has its finger back on the pulse here, but even this scene leaves you with the feeling that âStraight Outta Comptonâ could be so much more than what it is.
In attempting to capture the breadth and width of NWA, it overreaches and ultimately dilutes its potency. By the end, itâs clear that âStraight Outta Comptonâ is likely the safest, most conventional version of this story. Itâs history written by the victors or men printing their own legend, which is well-deserved (the rise of NWA is an incredible story of what happens when the American Dream becomes very real) but doesnât lend itself to actual drama despite a preponderance of it.
The approach is agreeable enough, especially since the producers have tapped a trio of bright actors to portray the pivotal members. Jackson Jr. is eerily convincing as his own father, especially whenever he adopts the signature scowl that reflected the groupâs righteous anger so effortlessly. However, he also finds the charisma that allowed Cube to become a multimedia star; here, it softens a character that otherwise might be sort of a villain considering he was the first to jump ship, effectively cutting NWA down in its prime.
In contrast, Hawkinsâs Dr. Dre is the quiet, reserved genius of the groupâheâs the kid who gets lost in his own world when his headphones are on and forms an almost supernatural connection to the tracks he produces. Caught firmly in the thick of all of the drama surrounding him, he comes off as a sharp kid whoâs far too trusting. All he wants is to produce music; everything else is just noise until he finally reaches his breaking point. His arc essentially takes him from a naĂŻve genius whose managers exploit him to a man who finally realizes the power of his own brand before striking out on his own.
This is the sort of film that treats a major buyout from Apple as a form of triumph, but itâs in keeping with Dreâs own insistence that music will be his way out of poverty.
Mitchellâs Eazy E. is the groupâs most tragic figure. In many ways, âStraight Outta Comptonâ is framed as his story, which accurately reflects the history and the incredible peaks and valleys he endured. When we first meet him, heâs running guns to a drug house thatâs quickly swarmed by a militarized police force wielding a tank during a scene that both explains and foreshadows the appeal of gangsta rapâthereâs a crazy sort of energy to it that almost makes it feel like a forbidden thrill despite its danger. Whatâs important, however, is that Mitchell also conveys the urgency of such a scene: out of all the members of NWA, he seems the most desperate to escape Compton, which makes him an easy target for an opportunistic manager who bleeds him dry once his more talented bandmates abandon him.
You watch him in the same way you regard a child who is prone to make bad decisions: by wincing every step of the way as heâs coaxed down the road of self-destructiveness, then feeling totally, completely awful once it catches up to him. Maybe he could have helped himself, but Mitchell is so convincingly pitiful that you begin to feel Eazy was a casualty of an era and a lifestyle that the film continues to glamorize regardless. Donât hate all of the players or even the game, the film seems to insist, but, rather, maybe hate some of the players, like Heller or Knight, two moguls that hitched their rides before derailing them.
To the end, âStraight Outta Comptonâ revels in the bandâs âus against the worldâ mentalityâit is perhaps wholly appropriate that itâs an unrepentant celebration of their lives and accomplishments. Itâs just too bad that it arrives now, in 2015, when it seems like Dre and Cube have mellowed to the point where even their unrepentance feels calculated and almost sterilized.You almost wish it would have been produced by the same guys we see during the first half of the film--I bet they would have titled this film âFuck Tha Policeâ and insisted on creating something that wasnât content to burn out until it consumed everything around it first.
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originally posted: 08/16/15 01:03:31