Movie Review: ‘Straight Outta Compton’
Aug. 16, 2015 11:52 p.m.
In some ways, “Straight Outta Compton” is what its titular album was almost 30 years ago.
The film is loud, raw and uncompromising; a street epic weaving together a dramatic, violent fantasy from what many South Central Angelinos knew to be a harsh reality. With racial tensions and police violence pervading the news again, it seems all the more relevant.
But whereas the album gave birth to a new genre of music and a new voice in popular culture, the movie tries for something much simpler: to entertain.
“Straight Outta Compton” chronicles the rise of iconic rap collective N.W.A. from its Compton roots to its eventual status as a group of musical and cultural juggernauts. The film casts aside a dedication to word-for-word truthfulness, using sensationalism to bring to life one of the most exciting legends of the West Coast hip-hop saga.
At the heart of it are three heroes: Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) – the young poet behind the group’s hard hitting bars, Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) – the musically gifted DJ, producer and the late Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) – the group’s founder-manager, whose drug money and charisma fronted the band in its early years.
F. Gary Gray’s film quickly glosses over the uglier bits of N.W.A.’s history, such as Dr. Dre’s alleged domestic abuse and the prevalence of misogyny in the group’s music, and dives into some of the facts and a lot of the mythos that make the group so well remembered today.
Perhaps most memorable is the infamous FBI letter warning the group to stop performing “Fuck Tha Police,” a graphic protest song highlighting and reacting to police brutality. The group responds by chanting its mantra to a full crowd, and with a dramatic touch by the director, subsequently gets chased down and arrested in front of the riled-up crowd.
Or maybe it’s the studio recording of the iconic “Boyz-N-The-Hood,” one of the group’s first hits, in which a reluctant Eazy-E, after a few comical attempts – apparently the man had no rhythm – delivers the high pitched, bellowed and now immortalized line: “Crusin’ down the street in my ’64.”
Piecing these stories together, Gray creates a hip-hop geek’s fantasy: a backstage pass into an up-and-coming rap world where rap beefs went much deeper than the Twitter-sphere. Whether the script is fact or fiction almost doesn’t matter, as Gray offers a rarely seen cinematization of the wild concerts and block parties, shady deals, brutal in-fighting and charismatic players that shaped the West Coast gangsta rap scene.
Sure, the film does get carried away, like Ice Cube when he channels his inner – well, his inner Ice Cube – and smashes up the office of Priority Records president Bryan Turner as retribution for the money he’s owed, although this particular scene reportedly did actually occur. For the sake of dramatic intensity, Gray compromises realism, which provokes the nagging question: How did this really go down?
Still, it’s a smart trade, considering the courtrooms and offices, where a lot of the conflict fueling the film actually got settled, are a lot less exciting than Ice Cube brandishing a baseball bat.
While the film’s heroes come across as complex, troubled characters, undergoing a personal journey, its villains – group manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), rival manager and notorious strongman Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor), and every policeman in the movie – are left as afterthoughts. They’re not so much characters as they are caricatures; most notably Heller, a collection of hilariously dated stereotypes of the old, white, out-of-touch music executive.
But underneath its ridiculous exaggerations, the film strikes a deeper chord. Set against the backdrop of a racially charged Los Angeles plagued by police and gang violence, it’s hard to fight back raw emotion as the young cast performs the classic “Straight Outta Compton.” It rivals the energy of their real-life counterparts and brings up some of the same issues that still haunt Americans today.
Maybe it’s a fan’s bias, but unfiltered emotion over dutiful realism seems an easy trade for enjoying a few hours of drama as larger-than-life and full of attitude as the group’s music. In some ways, it’s a fitting tribute.
– Aalhad Patankar