“These are not bangers, these are artists!” might as well be the official tagline of F. Gary Gray’s N.W.A biopic, “Straight Outta Compton” (named after the rap super-group’s first album). Instead, the line is tossed off by Paul Giamatti (starring as the group’s manager, Jerry Heller) during an altercation with the police, one that almost immediately leads to the penning of the group’s seminal song “Fuck Tha Police,” an on-the-nose assertion that only hints at the rough — and gratingly obvious — road to come.
And yet Gray’s film starts strong, introducing a wide cast of players in illuminating and energetic ways. Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell) kicks off the action — appropriately enough, given his legacy as the group’s leader — with an ill-advised visit to a local flophouse, eager to extract money owed to him by insolvent dealers. Eazy’s drop-by is interrupted by the police, gung ho on the War on Drugs in ways that are both funny and genuinely upsetting (the film is rife with humor, and there are many — wholly intentional — laughs to be had here, a nice shot of levity into a complicated and occasionally heavy story). Elsewhere, Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) whiles away the time listening to a wide selection of records and working on his DJing, while O’Shea Jackson, Jr. spends his off-hours penning fresh lyrics and observing the world around him.
The screenplay’s treatment of the group’s initial start is surprisingly low-key, with the guys just sort of getting together to make some music, just sort of getting the money to put out a record, just sort of grabbing a manager and major fame in the process. As N.W.A manager Jerry Heller, Giamatti exemplifies the the fraught nature of the music industry, but he also delivers some of the film’s most clearly telegraphed storylines. Here’s Jerry delivering Eazy’s contract and no one else’s, here’s Jerry indulging in a fancy meal with Eazy while everyone else makes do with fast food, here’s Jerry looking on uncomfortably as Suge Knight (R. Marcus Taylor) begins to horn in on Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins, bringing something approaching grace to the role). That N.W.A. breaks up because of fights over contracts and money and credit isn’t a shock, but that most of the blame is foisted on interloper Jerry is a bit one-note.
The film’s first half is dedicated to N.W.A’s early years, complete with performances that so ably imitate N.W.A shows that it’s almost jarring, purposely rangy montages that focus on the group’s creative process and a number of sequences that make clear that N.W.A’s reputation of hellraisers wasn’t incorrect, though it may have been misunderstood by outsiders. The specter of the police looms large over most of “Straight Outta Compton,” from those opening scenes with Eazy to an altercation between a truly innocent Ice Cube and some power-mad cops to a longer sequence that dramatizes a riot in Detroit that’s spawned by the local force’s determination to shut down an N.W.A show, and the effect is eerily timely. The film’s second half is rife with references to the Rodney King beating and subsequent trial, and if N.W.A neophytes come away from the film with anything, it will likely be a hearty respect for the prescience of the group’s origin story.
The film’s performances are remarkably solid, most of which — especially that of Jackson, funnily enough — neatly walk the line between impression and impersonation. Casting Jackson as his own father was a canny move on the part of the production, but it’s one that pays off in spades; if there’s a breakout star in “Straight Outta Compton,” it’s unquestionably Jackson (Ice Cube fans might be tempted to say the same of N.W.A, but that’s an argument for another time).
Despite a full throttle first half, a smartly entertaining and remarkably straight-forward hour and change, “Straight Outta Compton” is unable to avoid some of the traditional traps that plague biopics. There’s no satisfying way to make a truly N.W.A-centric film, simply because if you make a film about N.W.A’s success, you have to end it with the group breaking up and engaging in a cold war of barbed rap lyrics. Instead, the film takes a wider view, following Eazy-E, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube as they all embark on individual endeavors with varied levels of success.
“Straight Outta Compton” compresses time, sacrificing story in the process. It’s not likely that Tupac Shakur (Marcc Rose) first started laying down lyrics to “California Love” while Dre screamed at a badly behaving Knight in the next room, but the film still forces such scenes on its audience. An older Ice Cube probably didn’t watch the “Straight Outta Compton” music video alongside his wife and children mere days before Eazy E finally reached out to him about a reunion, but that’s there, too. It’s biopic syndrome, this impulse to condense events to hit the high notes, to provide fans with recognizable stories, to essentially act as a greatest hits album, and it sinks the second half of an otherwise compelling, funny and extremely entertaining film with a beat all its own.
“Straight Outta Compton” opens nationwide on August 14.