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Review: F. Gary Gray’s N.W.A. Gangsta Rap Biopic ‘Straight Outta Compton’

Review: F. Gary Gray’s N.W.A. Gangsta Rap Biopic ‘Straight Outta Compton’

While autobiographical but ultimately fictional hip-hop films have marked the rags to riches narrative so common in music biopics—Eminem’s “8 Mile,” 50 Cent’s “Get Rich Or Die Trying”—traditional hip-hop biopics have largely eluded the big screen. The Notorious B.I.G. received the unremarkable “Notorious” in 2009, and several projects like a brewing Tupac Shakur drama have been in development for years, but very few music bios centered on rap stars have successfully hit the screen. However, director F. Gary Gray attempts to right this wrong with “Straight Outta Compton,” the overdue melodrama about N.W.A. (Niggas With Attitude), the seminal late ‘80s gangster rap group that changed the landscape of popular music with their controversial and incendiary music that spawned the solo careers of Dr. Dre (and his musical empire), rapper turned actor Ice Cube, and to a lesser extent, Eazy-E.

Produced principally by Cube, Dre, and Eazy-E’s widow (the trio that owned the rights to the story), “Straight Outta Compton,” is surprisingly blunt, with the surviving MCs deciding not to whitewash the history of the group or sidestep their own personal mistakes. And yet, “Straight Outta Compton,” while often entertaining and dynamic, ultimately feels as if its meant to act as a kind of cinematic trophy to rest on a pedestal that celebrates not only N.W.A., but the successful and trailblazing members who helped define hip hop outside of the group (namely Cube, Dre, and to a lesser extent Eazy-E).

‘Compton’ starts in 1986 with an action set-piece straight out of a James Bond film. Eric Wright aka Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) is slinging dope and finding himself in a compromised and potentially violent situation that’s upended by an L.A.P.D. SWAT team who attack the drug den with a battering ram and extreme force. Even if borderline ridiculous, with Eazy-E jumping Jason Bourne-style from roof to roof as he makes his slippery escape, it’s at least admittedly a helluva kinetic and attention-grabbing way to open a film. From there, the picture chronicles the nascent beginnings of the group and its core members — Andre Young aka Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), O’Shea Jackson aka Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.; Cube’s real life son playing his father), Eazy-E— and the circumstances of growing up in poverty-stricken Compton in the late ’80s, a veritable war zone of drugs, crime, and law enforcement abuse.

“Straight Outta Compton” sets up the triangular N.W.A dynamic: with Eazy-E as the savvy hustler and businessman who uses drug money to get the group started, Dre as the musical genius with family issues, and Cube as their lyricist and voice who channeled the anger and disenfranchising of black youth to lead the charge of N.W.A.’s revolutionary, call-to-arms message (given rather short shrift are the less popular and well-known members of the group MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.)).

While often dynamic and blistering, particularly in its braggadocio-filled musical performances—Gray and DP Matthew Libatique deftly capturing the energy, swagger and elan of booming live music—‘Compton’ suffers just as often from somewhat flat dialogue scenes of interpersonal drama (though one particular Libatique-crafted long take in a party/orgy scene is pretty striking).

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While most of the unknown actors are surprisingly decent (though some are just adequate), O’Shea Jackson Jr. certainly fares best, embodying the spirit, drive and determination of his father (it should be said Keith Stanfield crushes his cameo as the laconic Snoop Dogg which lends credence to the argument that music biopics should be cast for the quality of the actor and not the resemblance to the original figure as usually seems to be the case). And then there’s Paul Giamatti, the only real thespian in the cast who is in the unfortunate position of playing the unctuous one-note villain of the movie—Jerry Heller, the band’s manipulative, money grubbing, Jewish manager. Giamatti’s thinly-drawn, stereotypical character doesn’t have much dimension, so the actor is stuck in a box of melodramatics and awkward scenery-chewing.

As much as N.W.A. rocked the bells of music and culture—landing on national TV as controversial fodder for the news cycle, arriving on the radar of the FBI for inciting violence against law enforcement officials—“Straight Outta Compton” can feel a little orthodox and traditional. The melodrama follows all the familiar greatest hits beats of biopic narratives: struggle, overcoming adversity, the rush of overnight sensation success, with just the right amount of tragedy tossed in too. There’s certainly a VH1 Behind The Music” quality to the conventional ups and downs of the plot (though arguably the best version of what that can be), but you can also feel the concessions made in the writing to squeeze the story into a feature length film. Dr. Dre’s struggling family subplot has to make due as the only emotional foundation for the rest of the group, as there’s just not enough time to include crucial personal moments like the real-life death of Ice Cube’s sister as the group was on the rise.

But “Straight Outta Compton” fires on all cylinders when it centers on the music. Sequences of N.W.A. recording their influential music or rocking a crowd can be electrifying. Moments in the studio with the band creating and forming their music also have a great plucky energy, plus a much-needed playful sense of humor that crystallizes the outfit’s early sense of brotherhood, camaraderie, and five-against-the-world attitude. The best scenes of the film inventively employ cinema’s ability to manipulate time with humor and music: after Ice Cube leaves the group and delivers his diss track “No Vaseline” (which raps about the remaining N.W.A. members being anally screwed by their manager), the sequences plays out creatively with Cube recording the angry track in the studio crosscutting with the group listening to the track at home utterly deflated. The “oh shit!” feeling is palpably enjoyable and perhaps best embodies the entertaining spirit of the movie when its at its best.

Perhaps the biggest problem with “Straight Outta Compton” is its inherently fractured subject. N.W.A. was deeply impactful, but their lifespan was short-lived. The founding members only recorded one album together — the landmark Straight Outta Compton — before Ice Cube left the group, disgruntled with the way the money got funny quick. Only one great, but short EP (100 Miles & Running) and one lesser album (Niggaz4Life) followed. And so, struggling to find a proper ending, “Straight Outta Compton” keeps expanding on and on, hoping to hit the right note of satisfying perseverance and making amends (it’ll be interesting to see the feminist take on the film—which is filled with lots of casual misogyny, sexism, and worse).

Sprawling and time spanning, starting in 1986 and rolling all the way through 1995, ‘Compton’ decides to take on so much story beyond N.W.A., because it kind of has to. And it’s this ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ aspect of the narrative that hurts the film. At 2 and half hours, Gray’s picture feels at least thirty minutes too long.  ‘Compton’ also feels overly obligated to make nods to nearly every touchstone in hip hop that followed in the wake of N.W.A.: the emergence of Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur; the malignant influence of thug Suge Knight; the formation of Death Row Records; the fall of Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records; the rise of Ice Cube’s acting career; the formation of Dre’s AfterMath records, and much more.

Given the tragic deaths of Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and Michael Brown, the depressing circumstances of Baltimore, and the Black Lives Matter movement, “Straight Outta Compton” and its “Fuck Tha Police” sentiments certainly takes on a prescient resonance that will strike a chord with modern audiences. Police harassment, racism, and brutality is a cornerstone scar of the group’s angry sound and the Rodney King riots that hit in the middle of the movie are especially moving. The last act’s mood of conciliation however—the splintered group getting all touchy feel and apologetic right before Eazy-E’s untimely AIDS-related death—feels a little bit like convenient revisionism, but we suppose that’s for the music historians to parse.

As “Straight Outta Compton” heads into the finale with a closing credits sequence about the pioneering musical and cultural influence of N.W.A. (complete with Beats By Dre plug) what becomes clear is the biopic is almost akin to a cinematic keepsake and medal for its members that’s about protecting and cementing a musical legacy. In those final moments, ‘Compton’ really emphasizes the untouchable contributions the group made to hip hop. Even if it does strain itself in stressing Eazy-E’s discovering of Bone Thugs N’ Harmony (there’s little else post-N.W.A.that involved the rapper worth mentioning in hip hop history).

Lots of little quibbles and problems aside, one suspects audiences will have far less issue with the still-enjoyable “Straight Outta Compton.” And its crowd-pleasing formulaic narrative will make it go down smoothly with moviegoers looking to indulge in a nostalgic trip down memory lane that in many ways defined or touched their youth. Certainly the already movie-starved urban audience will finally receive their quarterly cinematic offering. As a largely proud and vigorous demonstration of African-American artistry, resilience, and impact, that’s certainly something worth championing. [B-]

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