Admittedly, I don’t have a lot of familiarity with the rap group NWA, as well as the entire history of
rap in the late 1980’s through the 1990’s. I’ve heard of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre but haven’t listened to hardly any of their music; instead I know Cube mainly through his film career (“Boyz n the Hood,” “Are We There Yet?” etc.) and Dre via his line of Beats headphones. The name Eazy-E rings a bell but again I don’t know anything about him and haven't listened to his music. Pathetic right? But that’s the way it goes sometimes.
So I went into F Gary Gray’s new biographical film “Straight Outta Compton” hoping to be entertained and learn about these influential musicians. I’m pleased to report that it succeeded on both fronts: “Straight Outta Compton” is an informative, timely, hugely entertaining, moving tribute to the musical group and a celebration of the Gangsta rap movement. It isn’t solely a musician biopic (NWA was short lived) but a portrait of a Cultural Revolution too.
In 1988 five guys-- Ice Cube, (O’Shea Jackson Jr. Ice Cube’s real life son) Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) came together. They took their harsh experiences growing up in crime infested Compton and translated them into a new kind of music that directly addressed the contemporary climate of frustration and unrest. NWA (and the subsequent side ventures that came after the group broke up) helped establish the Gangsta rap subgenre--a subgenre that would go on to influence an entire generation of Hip Hop artists and continues to influence artists today.
It’s an amazing story and Gray gives it the rich and sprawling film epic treatment it deserves. At a daunting two and half hours the picture covers three significant time periods: life in Compton before NWA, the yearlong period that NWA was together under the management of Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti, fast talking, nervous and supportive with a hint of slimy) and the post NWA period in which Ice Cube launched his solo rap career, Eazy-E continued to work with Heller and Dr. Dre cofounded Death Row records with Suge Knight (R Marcos Taylor, doing a spot on impression. He’s almost as intimidating as the real Knight).
“Straight Outta Compton” is enthralling to watch. From brutal street violence and police brutality, to the brotherly affection felt between the young artists and the tense feuds that develop in the post NWA period, Gray captures this hectic revolutionary atmosphere with energetic authenticity. Matthew Libatique’s (“Black Swan”) fluid hand held cinematography immerses the viewer in this world; his camera constantly tracking in and out parties, studio recording sessions and electrifying concerts (reminiscent of the camera work in the American sagas made by Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson or Robert Altman) making the film pop.
Where “Straight Outta Compton” excels the best is in the story and character development; the overall evolution from tightknit tribe to dispersed rivals is well defined. In the first two sections Gray takes great care in establishing the bond between the five members. A lot of time is spent on the smaller, intimate moments; in the recording studios or backstage as they joke around with one another and lend encouragement. They’re a united front; they all come from the same place, are all fed with the way they’re treated and looked at by outsiders. One of the things I appreciate most about the film is the way it takes intense and dour situations and makes them into positive experiences. At one point the five are harassed by police -- a harrowing frustrating sequence to watch but something good comes out of it (a song ). This part of the movie is about powering through bad situations, something the five of them have had to do their entire life. They refuse to be kept down and they have each other.
This strong sense of persistence and brotherhood makes their eventual falling out all the more devastating because we’ve come to know them as a unit. But as is often the case fame alienates them and instills a rivalry. They band together at first because all they had is each other but with success comes independent mindedness and egotism.
Dre is the most ambitious of the group, feeling more at home producing music and so its not surprising to see him break off from the group and co found his own record label. Meanwhile Cube is more short-tempered and skeptical from the beginning--skeptical of Heller and the record deal NWA signs and decides to launch his solo career. E’s arc is perhaps the most interesting and tragic; he goes from being reluctant to even get in front a microphone to the leader of NWA and eventually allows himself to be taken advantage of. As for the remaining two: MC Ren and DJ Yella function more as secondary characters. Even a two and half hour running time isn’t long enough to fully develop five different characters.
Thankfully however, Cube, Dre and E (the prominent members of NWA) evolve into well-rounded characters; they’re likable underdogs but at the same time their flaws (adultery, recklessness, selfishness etc.) are prominently displayed. The actors playing them give raw, impassioned performances and the fact that they’re relatively unknown actors gives the movie another layer of authenticity. These are young and hungry performers trying to make a name for themselves, just like the NWA musicians were back then.
Gray also makes good use of the actual NWA songs beyond simply live concerts. Going back to the police harassment scene, the tense incident leads to the creation of the song “F—the Police” (one of their most famous songs) and later on when the group has parted ways rap is used as a tool for battle. Through these examples, the director portrays just how much the music is intertwined with their surroundings. The songs are inserted organically into the movie—helping to drive the narrative forward and develop the characters
Is the movie flawless? Of course not. Some material gets glossed over and there are abrupt shifts in tone, making things feel melodramatic at times. But “Straight Outta Compton” is an engrossing and important film that should be seen immediately. It tells a significant story about significant musicians. And it’s timely! With all the recent police shootings, talk of racial inequality and the Black Lives Matter Movement, it couldn’t have come sooner. Seeing the group perform “F—the Police” in front of a massive, enthusiastic crowd one night in Detroit seems like it could have happened yesterday. I don’t think a movie needs to be timely in order to be good but it certainly doesn’t hurt.