Straight Outta Compton (2015)

3 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When it came to musical biopics released in 2015, many people may have forgotten about the Beach Boys movie, “Love & Mercy,” one of my favorites of the year; but who could forget the N.W.A. flick, “Straight Outta Compton,” which was a monster hit. Ironically, while “Love & Mercy” was more grounded and low-key, “Straight Outta Compton” is surprisingly conventional as well as energetic. It contains certain music biopic tropes—naysayers, uncertainty of something new and different, downfalls, tragedy, betrayals, etc. We’ve seen all that before. But the film’s electrifying energy is the key to its success—hell, if a film about N.W.A. wasn’t energetic, it’d probably be a major disappointment to nostalgic N.W.A. fans. The point I’m getting at early in this review is that it doesn’t matter how “conventional” a movie of this sort is, much like it doesn’t matter where certain ideas may come from for any movie—it’s what’s done with the material that really matter.

I enjoyed “Straight Outta Compton.” It’s an enthralling, powerful, powerfully acted film about a risk-taking, game-changing rap group, even if the film itself isn’t game-changing (for that matter, it may not be all that risk-taking either, since some original members of N.W.A. were consultants for the film and most likely didn’t want certain things from their life to be portrayed on screen). But I don’t mind so much.

The film takes place from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. It begins in Los Angeles in 1986, when Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) was selling weed, Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) moved out of his mother’s house, and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) was writing rap lyrics based on everyday things he noticed around him. This is a time when young black men were stopped, frisked, and even beaten by police even when they were just standing on the streets. (Hell, what am I talking about? We still live in that time today!) The anger that came from these kids’ experiences crossed with their dreams of making it big with rap led to “reality rap,” for which they form the group N.W.A. (if you don’t know what that stands for, this isn’t the movie for you) and create angry music based on what they go through day after day. They tell it like it is and become very successful, which in turn makes other people worried that they endorse violence and anti-authority behavior. And of course, the irony becomes clearer when they’re warned not to perform their most angry piece, “F*ck the Police,” at a concert guarded by police; of course, they do and the police start shooting, ending the concert—tell me who’s being violent here?

The first half of “Straight Outta Compton” is by far the best part, showing the creative process of getting this craft done, feeling the intensity of the energetic live performances, and more importantly, letting us feel the anger that they feel, especially when they’re attacked by police. It keeps its riveting edge as the group’s manager, Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), manipulates Eazy-E into making him think he’s bigger than everyone else, which then leads to Ice Cube leaving the group to go solo, which then leads to him becoming a hit, which then leads to a nasty war between labels, which then leads to Dre forming Death Row Records with the violent, hulking Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor, quietly chilling in the role), and other events that lead to the end of N.W.A. The film gets less energetic as it goes along and its tone grows suitably more grim (especially when it comes to a tragedy late in the film), and while that’s not necessarily “fun” to watch, it is still captivating, well-acted, and intriguing for those who don’t know how N.W.A. went through the downward spiral. I can’t complain that much about it, except for the argument that it suffers from a few pacing issues as a result; I feel like it stalls at certain parts, particularly at the melodramatic material.

The casting is pitch-perfect all around. In particular, Jason Mitchell is abrasive and charismatic as Eazy-E, Corey Hawkins is immensely appealing as Dr. Dre, Paul Giamatti is smooth as a slick album producer who manipulates Eazy-E to betray certain people in the group, and then there’s O’Shea Jackson, Jr. as Ice Cube—damn is he good! This is a truly remarkable performance, bringing Ice Cube’s look and feel to authentic levels. Oh, and did I mention he’s actually Ice Cube’s son? And it’s not just an imitation either, which is more than a plus. Also solid are Aldis Hodge as MC Ren and Neil Brown Jr. as DJ Yella, and I was also impressed by Keith Stanfield (who I remembered from “Short Term 12”) in a brief cameo appearance as Snoop Dogg; I wish he had more screen time.

I mentioned in an above paragraph that the film isn’t entirely “risk-taking.” For one thing, it doesn’t mention Dr. Dre’s violence toward women, which is well-known to quite a lot of people. I get that the writers, Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, chose to keep some things out for the actual band members’ sake, but it’s not like the film portrays them as role models anyway (it does show them as misogynistic at times, even throwing in a “Bye Felicia” joke midway through), so it’s not like they have that much to lose.

“Straight Outta Compton” does work surprisingly well as commentary…unfortunately a little too well. Think about what Ice Cube was rapping about almost 30 years ago and what’s going on in the news even to this day. But “Straight Outta Compton” is still an entertaining film for the power of the material, the live performances which are entertaining, the acting which is spot-on, and the screenplay which is very well-written. I mentioned in my “Love & Mercy” review that I wouldn’t be able to listen to a Beach Boys song the same way again; I feel the same way about N.W.A. songs after seeing this film.

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