Straight Outta Compton

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 08/13/15 11:14:04

"Five Kings"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

"Straight Outta Compton," the long-awaited biopic chronicling the history of the wildly influential rap group N.W.A., is essentially "The Doors" with slightly more gunfire and better solo careers. This is not necessarily meant to be a slam against this generally well-made film as much as it is an observation about how most films of this type, regardless of the musical genre they are dealing with, tend to resemble each other, both structurally and emotionally. And yet, despite recounting events that occurred years before the majority of the target audience was even born, outside circumstances have conspired to give it the sense of immediacy that was one of the key reasons that rap made such an impact when it first hit big and it is that sense of immediacy that helps keep things moving along when it threatens to bog down under the weight of genre conventions and a certain degree of whitewashing regarding some of the less savory aspects of the story.

Beginning in the late Eighties, "Straight Outta Compton" begins as five guys from one of L.A.'s rougher neighborhoods--Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson Jr.), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown)--come together from the fringes of the rap community to create music that speaks more to the reality of what is going on in the streets than what is currently being played in the clubs. After a last-minute snafu lands Eazy-E, whose participation was originally limited only to funding the recordings with money made from his drug-dealing career, behind the microphone, their first effort, "Boyz N the Hood," becomes a local smash and attracts the attention of music manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who seems to have the right connections to help them make it to the next level. In fact, he manages to do just that and when the debut album "Straight Outta Compton," featuring the incendiary protest song "Fuck Tha Police," is released, it is an instant smash brings the group equal amounts of money, women and controversy.

Well, maybe not that equal. While Eazy-E and Heller are cozying up over fat deals with Priority Records (a label that made its initial splash with the California Raisins before moving into the slightly more lucrative rap field) and lobster lunches, the others in the group have no contracts to speak of and are still eating fast food. Particularly incensed is Ice Cube, who wrote most of the lyrics for "Straight Outta Compton" and who is convinced that he is getting screwed by his former friend and the newcomer. When he is pressured into signing a lousy contract, he bolts from the group and begins his own solo career. At first, Cube is willing to let bygones be bygones but when the group begins talking trash about him on their next recording, he responds in brutal and hugely entertaining fashion. (For younger readers, it was sort of like the Taylor Swift/Katy Perry feud, only with slightly dirtier language.) Although Dre sticks with the group at first, he too becomes suspicious with Eazy-E and when he falls under the sway of the slightly hot-tempered Suge Knight (R. Marcus Taylor), he winds up leaving as well to help form Death Row Records, a move that all but officially ends N.W.A., both creatively and commercially, but which eventually proves to be just as personally troubling as the joys of working with such up-and-comers as Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur are offset by the increasingly unhinged Knight's tendencies towards staging dogfights in the studio lobby and pistol-whipping anyone who parks in his space.

As is often the case with films of this types, the early scenes of "Straight Outta Compton" are the best. There is just something irresistible about seeing the circumstances surrounding the creation of classic songs and watching the performers react as their creations connect with audiences. In arguably the most electrifying scene in the entire film, the group is lectured before a Detroit concert by a phalanx of cops warning them of the consequences if they even dream of playing "Fuck Tha Police" and shockingly decide to defy said orders. Much of the power in these scenes derives from the spot-on casting in all the key roles. Much has been made of the fact that the pivotal role of Ice Cube has been filled by Cube's own son, O'Shea Jackson Jr., and while the physical resemblance is absolutely startling (if you didn't know better, you might assume that they did one of those CGi deals along the lines of Michael Douglas at the beginning of "Ant-Man"), he also expertly conveys the quiet intelligence and simmering rage that expresses itself through his oftentimes astounding wordplay. The other actors are excellent as well in overcoming the tricky problem of playing well-known real-life people who are either still around or who can easily be seen via YouTube. As Heller, a record industry sleaze of the highest order who nevertheless has some hard truths to convey about the industry, Paul Giamatti gives a performance here almost as good as the one he gave earlier this summer as another exploitative weasel in "Love & Mercy."

The trouble with "Straight Outta Compton" is that at 146 minutes, this is a long movie and the last hour or so, dealing with Dre's conflicts with Knight, Cube working on his solo career and Eazy-E desperately trying to save his company before being hit with a tragic twist of fate, drags considerably after a while--you get the sense that the film was stretched out to this length in order to make it seem like a real biopic like "The Doors" or "Ray," whether it needs to be that long or not. A bigger problem is that for a film chronicling the rise of a form of music--gangsta rap (though the group prefers to call it "reality rap")--that was dedicated to providing a clear and unsentimentalized look at life in the hood, where the mere act of walking across the street could get you killed by a gang member or rousted by equally vicious cops, "Straight Outta Compton" feels at times like a bit of a whitewash in the historical department. Beyond the political content, N.W.A. was slammed in many quarters for being homophobic, anti-semitic and misogynistic, both on and off the turntable, but instead of dealing with them head-on, director F. Gary Gray, either treats these accusations as meaningless trifles or ignores them entirely. (Similarly, anyone coming to film for anything involving Dr. Dre's 1991 assault against a female journalist covering the N.W.A./Ice Cube contretemps--which he dismissed with "Besides, it ain't no big thing--I just threw her through a door," will come away disappointed.) Perhaps Gray chose to disregard such material so that he could have more time to show Cube at his word processor putting together the screenplay for the deathless 1995 masterpiece "Friday," a film that, one will recall, was directed by Gray. More likely, the smoothing over the rougher parts of the story can be explained by the fact that Ice Cube and Dr. Dre are listed as being two of the film's numerous producers.

The unwillingness of "Straight Outta Compton" to play as straight with audiences as N.W.A. did with their music is off-putting but there are enough other saving graces to make up for it. The performances across the board are all impressive and if there is any justice, this film should help launch a number of acting careers. Gray's direction is easily the most solid of his entire career in the way that it recreates a pivotal time in popular music history with a lot of excitement. The music, of course, still resonates with all the power and fury that it possessed when it was originally recorded. And as you walk out of this film, which features young black males being harassed by the police for little more than being black in public, said police not being convicted for their brutality even when it is captured on video for all to see and tensions that can break out into a riot in a heartbeat, you may come to the sudden and sad realization that even though the events in it are more than two decades old, this may still be the most timely and resonate film to come out of a major studio this summer, unfortunately.

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