Straight Outta Compton Review

Posted: August 28, 2015 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

straight outta comptonWritten by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

I had some serious reservations going into Straight Outta Compton. Biopics are commonly formulaic and bland, and this seems doubly true of musical biopics. Adding to my doubt was the fact that Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy-E’s wife all served as producers on the film. These people all struck me as being too close to the events who’d either me unable to see events honestly, or admit to the less savoury aspects of their lives. Finally, F. Gary Gray didn’t exactly strike me as a tremendous filmmaker who could bring the important story to the screen. He’s not a bad director, but he always just seemed workman-like. In spite of these concerns, I did have a great interest in Straight Outta Compton. The trailers were quite strong and as we came closer to the film’s release it became clear this was gonna be one of the bigger films of the summer.

The film opens in 1986, focusing on Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), and Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell). We see their backgrounds and environments which include lower income, crime, and police brutality. Cube and Dre convince Eazy-E to invest in their fledging music careers. E is convinced and takes a very active role in the group which will come to be N.W.A. The group finds early success with their single “Boyz-n-the-Hood”, which attracts music producer Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). Jerry will help propel the band to new heights with albums like Straight Outta Compton, but will also sow the seeds for the group’s end.

One of the things Straight Outta Compton really nails is the cast. Each sink into their roles very well. O’Shea Jackson (Ice Cube’s real son) has the right elements of charisma and danger, while Corey Hawkins is equally good as the more reserved but equally talented Dr. Dre. Both also handle their arcs from hungry youth to top-tier talents quite well. It’s also worth noting that both actors look very similar to their real life counterparts, which is nice given how famous Cube and Dre still are. Strong as those two are, the real show stealer is Jason Mitchell as Easy-E. The dude has the most complex character and the widest emotional spectrum. Beyond that, he’s just a very entertaining presence. The rest of the cast is rounded out nicely by actors who fill their roles well. The presence of veteran Paul Giamatti is also welcome as he elevates a potentially clichéd character into someone a little more nuanced.

The first third of the film depicts N.W.A.’s beginnings and this is far and away the best section of the film. The subject matter is inherently interesting in large part due to the uniqueness of the band’s origins. This isn’t just about youths with a passion for music, but also a portrait of street life in the Los Angeles of the 1980s. The scenes of musical creation are genuinely inspiring and they lend the film a tremendous energy. You really do feel like you’re watching something special grow. F. Gary Gray is largely responsible for the energy and excitement on screen. He stages things well and the editing, particularly in the first third, is appropriately aggressive. I wouldn’t call this a revelation for Gray, but it is substantially better than what he’s done previously.

The first third also benefits from a lot of material depicting the relationship between blacks and the cops in America. These scenes are very strong and feel especially poignant after the recent examples of police brutality toward blacks in America. This poignancy is all the more powerful given how the music of N.W.A embodies an anthem of resistance to the kind of abuse of power which has plagued racialized groups throughout American history. The film’s most important and memorable scene is when Ice Cube first busts out “Fuck Tha Police” after being a victim of police discrimination. It’s a cathartic moment which feels like a tribute to the Oscar Grants and Michael Browns of the world.

Much as I enjoyed the film, it does start to decline past the first third. After N.W.A becomes a big success, the film starts to deal with more traditional biopic elements like band mate disagreements and manager screw-jobs. This material is still more compelling than usual due to high drama, particularly involving Suge Knight, but it’s more traditional just the same. The real crime is the treatment of the L.A. riots. The film places great emphasis on the Rodney King beating and the subsequent trial before building to the acquittal of the officers. This is when the infamous L.A. riots breakout, which should be the culmination of N.W.A’s anger and prophetic warnings. Instead, we get one brief scene of riots before the film cuts to six months later, moving on completely. This should have been way more important to the film, and was even building up to that, but the payoff is lacking. It’s also disappointing given that the rest of the film seems more like a perfunctory climax and it really drags. It’s also a shame that we get glimpses into the insanity of Death Row Records, but this too is short lived. I suspect this material could have made its own movie, rather than just making a guest appearance here. I should say that none of this material is bad, it’s just not nearly as compelling as the beginning.

Straight Outta Compton is also guilty of some the things I worried it would be, particularly its depiction of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. The film is careful not to present either individual in anything resembling a negative light. The most glaring omission is Dre’s abuse of Dee Barnes. Perhaps the incident, and others, wouldn’t have fit into the narrative, but it does speak to a certain softening of the material. The film also avoids the group’s more sexist and homophobic lyrics. I’m not saying the band should have been vilified for these things, but they are elements of the group’s legacy that shouldn’t be sidestepped.

All told Straight Outta Compton is a very entertaining film even for someone with only a passing interest in the music of N.W.A. The best moments of the film are really good and even at its worst the film is never truly bad. There are some really strong performances for potential up and comers and it’s refreshing to see a summer movie that isn’t about a superhero or spy. Straight Outta Compton doesn’t reinvent the musical biopic, but it executes on the formula pretty well.

B

Comments
  1. […] ‘Straight Outta Compton’ not only gave you good acting but it also gave you laughs. Once of the funniest scenes comes when Easy first steps into the studio. His inability to rap is hilarious and Cube, Dre and Yella’s reactions only make it funnier. My favorite scene, though, has to be when Cube is riding on the school bus and some of the students decide to be fake tough guys and throw gang signs out the window to some legit thugs. The repercussions for those students stupidity is nothing short of classic cinema (yeah I said it) and also includes probably the best line in a movie I’ve heard all year when Mr. OG Two Tone tells the students they better start “gang banging their books”. Hahahaha! […]

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