STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON Movie Review
It’s no easy task to overcome the trappings of the familiar biopic formula that’s caused the genre to fall victim to it’s own predictability. The best example of avoiding such tired clichés would be the brilliant Coal Miner’s Daughter, and that was 35 years ago. Thankfully, even though it hits familiar narrative beats, the bulk of Straight Outta Compton is raw and potent myth-making on a grand scale. Most importantly it captures the spirit of rebellious hip hop pioneers, N.W.A., and the relevance their music still holds today.
To quote The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When then the legend becomes fact…print the legend.” That’s exactly the approach Dr. Dre and Ice Cube have taken with this personal project. For the most part, that approach is genuinely beneficial in creating some enthralling cinematic entertainment.
In the opening scene, Eazy E (played by Jason Mitchell) gets caught up in a drug deal gone bad, leading to a suspenseful and exciting escape from the cops. The chase scene escalates to a tank and a battering ram getting involved. It’s staged and photographed with awesome grit and energy, all thanks to cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Black Swan) and director F. Gary Gray (Friday). There’s a sense of danger and rawness in that scene that was so exciting, it reminded me of when John Singleton left such a strong impression as a director in Boyz n the Hood.
There’s a rhythmic narrative flow in the manner Dr. Dre (played by Corey Hawkins) and Ice Cube (played by O’Shea Jackson) are introduced as central protagonists to their own story. The musical influences inspire Dre as a producer, and the cold brutality of every day life fuels Ice Cube’s poetic commentary. These strong character traits navigate their own important roles in defining what they would each contribute to N.W.A.
When Eazy E gets persuaded to lay down a track, “Boyz N’ Tha Hood,” and fumbles his delivery to comedic effect, there’s a chilling moment when Dr. Dre helps him deliver the opening line with conviction. Thus, the birth of their collaboration invokes sheer anticipation for their inevitable destination.
Paul Giamatti walks an intricate line in his approach to Jerry Heller, the manager who helped catapult N.W.A. to success. He is partialy portrayed to be somewhat of father figure to Eazy E, and is seen taking a stand for their civil rights while being harassed and bullied by the L.A.P.D. On the flip side, he’s also shown as a greedy business man with his own best interests at heart. It’s a slippery role to play and Giamatti does a teriffic job at keeping this character from being one-dimensional. There’s a compelling dynamic between Heller and Eazy E in this movie that comes across as equally empathetic and heartbreaking.
Momentum largely drops after Ice Cube’s angry departure from N.W.A. There’s a moment where Heller and the remaining members are listening to one of Ice Cube’s greatest diss tracks of all time, and the reactions in the room are perfectly executed with facial expressions and momentary outbursts. Afterwards, they’re suddenly in a big hurry to drive the narrative through to a glorified highlight reel that overlooks everything that could put these producers in a negative light by today’s standards, and the only thing keeping the remainder of the movie afloat narratively is Eazy E’s dramatic turn battling financial troubles and tragically discovering his contraction of AIDS.
There’s a rumor that the original cut of the film is three and a half hours long. Honestly, if it’s necessary to include Dre’s collaboration with Suge Knight (played by R. Marcus Taylor), recording “Hail Mary” for Tupac Shakur (played by Marcc Rose), and meeting Snoop Dogg (played by Keith Stanfield) for The Chronic album and the Deep Cover soundtrack, then this movie could stand to have kept that length to have those moments actually leave an impact instead of being rushed winks and nods.
At one point the script apparently included Eminem as well, with Ansel Elgort being courted for the role. So why exclude that and leave everything else in the highlights? As much as Straight Outta Compton falls victim to the conventional trappings of standard biopics in the second half, there’s still an unflinching honesty to this movie’s feelings about standing up to corrupt authority and how the idea of family and unity can be sidelined by capitalism and greed. These are ideas that N.W.A. stood up for.
Though it’s a shame that N.W.A.’s rough edges were smoothed out to make the creative forces look good in retrospect — glossing over the misogyny, violence and homophobia that had a strong presence in their history — perhaps F. Gary Gray was too close to the source material to give it an unbiased edge from beginning to end. I’m sure Dr. Dre and Ice Cube weren’t interested in letting that happen, but there’s enough enthralling spirit in the first half and teriffic moments scattered in the second to make it a step above the standard biopic fare. In other words, this is the best movie about N.W.A. we’re going to get.