Straight Outta Compton hurtles toward greatness only to fall short in execution. Yet, aiming high and falling short still results in a very good film.
Straight Outta Compton takes us back to inner-city Los Angeles in the latter half of the '80s, to the gang-violence and brutal policing policies of Compton, California's streets. There we meet Eric "Eazy-E" Wright (Jason Mitchell), a hard-edged drug dealer who's running out of luck when it comes to avoiding death and/or jail. Eric's friend Andre "Dr. Dre" Young (Corey Hawkins) is a local DJ dreaming of hip-hop glory, while weighted down by the burdens of being a father and struggling to make ends meet. Dre's friend O'Shea "Ice Cube" Jackson (O'Shea Jackson, Jr.) is a gifted hip-hop poet just trying to survive daily life as a Compton youth - but when he and Dre unite on stages at local clubs, it's clear that their "hardcore hip-hop music" is something special.
Backed by Eric's ill-gotten street funds, Dre launches "Ruthless Records" gathering local talent like Cube, E., and friends DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) into a hip-hop group that can bring the unique sounds and realities of life in Compton to the mainstream music scene. Before long, the boys have an enterprising manager named Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), a new image as"the world's most dangerous group," N.W.A., and a string of hit records that make them rock stars to the youth. However, that same hardcore image and fame makes this rap group and their growing movement a frightening new target for mainstream America to demonize. But before they can take on the challenge of worldly attention, N.W.A. finds themselves imploding from internal conflicts - a fracturing that propels Cube, Dre and E. down very different life paths of success, fame failure and ultimately, reconciliation.
Straight Outta Compton is a standout entry in the biopic genre, masterfully crafted by F. Gary Gray into an inspiring tale of musical aspiration amidst overwhelming adversity. However, like most biopics, the attempt to cover so much life (and in this case, milestone events) in the span of a feature-film results in a slight thinning of focus as the movie goes on. With so many famous characters to follow, and so many well-known events to cover (or not cover), the movie ends up sacrificing thematic focus for selectively episodic (and flattering) visits along its subjects' path to stardom. Like N.W.A. itself, Straight Outta Compton starts out with something important to say, but ultimately loses its message as egos and fame cloud the vision.
F. Gary Gray directs an awards-worthy biopic for two-thirds of Straight Outta Compton's runtime. From the opening scene (an intense look at Eazy-E's work as a drug dealer), Gray starts a pressure-cooker that successfully conveys how the reality of impoverished, deadly and oppressive life in Compton instills the members of N.W.A. with the lyrics and attitudes of hardcore rap music. This communication of the motivations behind West Coast gangsta rap's origins is a feat in itself, but Gray's film gets the added boost of coming at a time when the cultural zeitgeist is once again focused on issues of wealth inequality, police brutality and racism. It's as if Straight Outta Compton has arrived serendipitously in order to remind us just how far things haven't come since the late '80s, and what rap music represents to that struggle.
However, by the time the second act has culminated in chronicling's N.W.A.'s infamous confrontation with police at a Detroit concert, the screenplay (the composited work of four relatively untested screenwriters), has largely run out of thematic fuel. What we get afterward is the pastiche of history that is common to biopics - and like so many other films in the genre, Straight Outta Compton can't find central threads strong enough to tie together each episodic moment we witness without a lot of a notable jumps and omissions.
Though the movie starts with eyes on Eazy-E, it's in fact Dr. Dre's story that takes over in the third act, while Ice Cube becomes something of a side character in the proceedings. That shift is jolting, as the raw honesty at he beginning of the film morphs into a more carefully-tailored depiction of Dr. Dre's biography. As such, hip-hop fans with long memories will notice how certain aspects of history (like the true ugliness of the Dre/Eazy feud, or the producer's more infamous scandals) are downplayed to make certain characters (Dre in particular) appear more heroic, while other characters (like Marion "Suge" Knight) are depicted as unequivocally villainous. It's a questionable tactic, as the film somehow chooses to ignore much of the gray history behind both Ruthless Records and Death Row Records - not to mention Dre's image as a gangsta rap star.
Of course, sympathy is easy to lend to the characters (keyword) that the film presents as its protagonists, thanks to some wonderful breakout performances from Straight Outta Compton's lead trio. O'Shea Jackson, Jr. rises to the meta challenge of capturing his father Ice Cube's badass swagger and wit, which has become the rapper/actor/filmmaker's trademark since his days on the microphone. The drama and vulnerability is carried by Corey Hawkins (Non-Stop), who makes Dre a complicated and well-layered young genius - one whose artistic idealism constantly clashes with the harshness of his environment. Rounding out the trio is Jason Mitchell (Contraband), who manages to manifest the sheer charisma and charm of "Eazy-E," but also delivers "Eric Wright," the lovable and talented young man behind the violent braggart rap persona.
With the three leads come a nice string of supporting players: Paul Giamatti walks a thin line, presenting Jerry Heller as a pivotal figure whose true motives (malicious, selfish, well-meaning?) are constantly in question. Actors Neil Brown Jr. (Suits), Aldis Hodge (Leverage) and newcomer Marlon Yates, Jr. do well in helping to flesh out lesser-known N.W.A. members DJ Yella, MC Ren and group associate D.O.C. (respectively), while still allowing the three central leads to take the forefront. Stunt man R. Marcos Taylor is a scene-stealer as Suge Knight, interjecting a haunting menace that hovers around Dre and Co. throughout the film. In another movie (perhaps a full tale focused on Dre), Taylor would've been a commanding villain, but here it feels like Suge's story is an extraneous part of the narrative body.
Covering the Dre / Suge fallout comes at the cost of screen time that could've been invested in exploring the uglier sides of the Eazy-E / Dre fallout. That the movie avoids any unflattering accounts of its living subjects (Dre, Cube) ultimately weakens the emotional impact and larger thematic resonance of the story. Dre and Cube's success, and the ultimate tragedy of Eazy-E's fate, plays like a "True Hollywood Story" ending (a well-earned one, to be fair), rather than a mirror for how the factors that created N.W.A., and eventually the LA riots, are still at play in the modern age - and what, exactly, the voice of modern rap/hip-hop means to that continued struggle (or not). It's a somewhat disappointing drop-off, but a steady stream of young actors portraying iconic figures in iconic moments (Snoop Dogg, Tupac, etc...) will likely distract most viewers from the reality that the film has switched the lure of socio-political commentary for a lineup of veritable historical Easter eggs and celebrity impressions.
In the end, Straight Outta Compton hurtles toward greatness only to fall short in execution. Yet, aiming high and falling short still results in a very good film - one that will preserve the legend and influence of N.W.A.'s legacy, no matter how selective the film is with the facts. West Coast reality rap gets a halfway real chronicle of its origins.
Straight Outta Compton is now playing in theaters. It is 147 minutes long and is Rated R for language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence, and drug use.
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