By R. David
Viewed August 18, 2015
I want to clarify right at the top that I truly enjoyed and enthusiastically recommend “Straight Outta Compton”, director F. Gary Gray’s energetic and often poignant N.W.A biopic. The film has terrific performances across the board, an inherently intriguing and exciting story, and Gray has a deft handle on the material; capturing the live-wire energy of the band’s concert performances, the outsized, cinematic drama of their more exaggerated exploits, as well as quieter moments of inspiration and heartbreak. “Straight Outta Compton” is an exceedingly well made film and I hope fans of the group and rap music in general, as well as – maybe even more so – those who are not fans of N.W.A/rap music go see it.
I want that all on record because I’m going to spend the majority of this review talking about perhaps the one and only thing (besides a few hammy line readings here and there and over the top or on the nose dialog) that is wrong with “Straight Outta Compton”: There is simply not enough here. Even at two-and-a-half hours, “Straight Outta Compton” feels like a rush job; jumping so quickly from one event to the next that the group’s Wikipedia page is likely more comprehensive.
I’ll get into specifics in a minute.
Another disclaimer: Yes, I know all biopics are guilty of this, all filmmakers tell the story they want to tell, and, again; what is here is all very good. But “Straight Outta Compton” so quickly settles into a feature-length “Behind the Music” episode groove that it never really tries – in this cut, anyway (Gray says the film was initially an hour longer) – to subvert. And, frankly, “Behind the Music” would have been more exploratory, or at least mention certain major details “Straight Outta Compton” blatantly ignores.
Initially though, Gray sets a tone suggesting “Compton” will be a detailed, immersive period piece. Beginning in Compton (which, if you’re unfamiliar, is a low-income suburb of South Central Los Angeles, CA that became synonymous with gang culture in the late-‘80s and early-‘90s) in the mid-‘80s, we are first introduced to drug dealer Eric Wright, aka Eazy E (Jason Mitchell). He escapes a drug bust by the hair on his chinny-chin-chin and realizes he needs to find a better way to make a living. Cut to Andre Young, aka Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), lying on the floor of his cramped Compton house, headphones on, surrounded by record jackets and R&B posters. His mom tells him being a DJ is not a real job, especially for a man with a newborn baby. O’shea Jackson, aka Ice Cube (Cube’s real-life son O’shea Jackson Jr.), buses to a suburban, predominantly white school, but is harassed at every turn in Compton, whether it be by local gangs or local cops.
Of course, Ice Cube made his film debut in John Singleton’s 1991 drama, “Boyz In The Hood”, which covers much of this same territory of gang culture – culture in general – in South Central and the abusive nature of the L.A.P.D. Gray and his team of four screenwriters try to incorporate some of this too, but here’s the first instance where their film feels hamstrung by this monolithic tale. They simply can’t – or don’t, for whatever reason – find a way to give these scenes the emotional weight they demand. Some people accuse “Boyz In the Hood” of being corny (“an after school special”, as Eazy E once tagged it), but its depictions of neighborhood fear, violence and poverty; and the extent of the L.A.P.D’s righteous indignation and abuse of people and power; were searing and unforgettable. Whatever your opinion of the movie’s overall execution, there’s no denying, it made an impact. Granted, “Straight Outta Compton” is not intended to be THAT film, but I assume any movie that wants you to understand where its subjects are coming from and what pushes and influences them, wants to get those moments right, make them count, and land on the audience with some impact. But there’s a bare-minimum approach to the way Gray presents these incidents that doesn’t really dig into the fear and disgust these characters feel in their surroundings.
There are ways you could argue this, of course. Maybe the point is these young men are so used to all this it has simply become just another day in the hood. Maybe the movie would rather the music do the talking (but then why make a biopic in the first place?). Maybe it’s because the film has three or four different scenes involving various forms of police harassment, it figures it covers the bases. But that’s only one aspect of the issues in Compton; what about the poverty, gang violence, overall culture of the neighborhood? These things are only hinted at. I don’t know if Gray figures most of the audience either lived through this era or is at least familiar enough with glut of “Hood” movies from the ‘80s and ‘90s that he doesn’t have to spend a lot of time explaining the neighborhood and cultural dynamic of the time, but I think shortchanging those issues robs the film of a lot of potential power.
And I say that as someone who was a kid in those days and who grew up with those news reports, films and this music. Over the last couple decades we haven’t heard much about South Central L.A., drive-bys, and the life and gang culture in places like Compton like we used to from every hardcore rapper in the early 90s. If you’re, say, 20-years-old and not a huge movie or music buff, chances are you haven’t been exposed to much of the art that chronicled this lifestyle. Sure a lot of teens today might know “The Chronic” and other seminal ‘80s and ‘90s rap albums, but I have a hard time believing 90% of them would have any idea how dire the situation was in South Central in the late ‘80s. Middle-aged people may need a reminder too. When the film gets to the Rodney King beating and the subsequent L.A. riots (another major turning point for the group, hip hop culture and the nation as a whole, Gary makes sure to reference it and tries his best to convey its importance to the audience, but he simply can’t make its profound cultural impact stick in the little time he spends on it) I heard an adult in the theater admit she had forgotten that all of those L.A.P.D. officers were acquitted. No doubt she, and others, may also have forgotten that’s what triggered the riots. Or that, as Ice Cube noted at the time, it was decades of police injustice in South Central that led to the rioting. The Rodney King verdict was just the final straw. People were already primed to explode; the verdict was the match that lit the fuse. The movie though, for those too young to understand or those who don’t remember, fails to explore any of that. I guess it gives you all the pieces and you can fit them together yourself, but again, it’s a powerful opportunity they squander.
These weightier issues themes and moments of history can’t be explained away with just a line or two or an additional shot here and there. However, a lot of the other balls the movie drops certainly could be. Dre is disenchanted with his role as a DJ at Alanzo Williams’ (Corey Reynolds) local club where Williams won’t allow him to play “that reality rap shit”. But when Williams’s back is turned, Dre and his on-stage partner DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) often sneak Cube on stage and the three of them work the crowd into a frenzy with “that reality rap shit”. What the film barely touches on is the fact that Dre and Yella were not just Williams’s club DJs; the three men also comprised a DJ-based eclecro-R&B group called World Class Wreckin Cru. They had synchronized dance moves, wore shimmering jump suits – Dre had a stethoscope around his neck, because DR. Dre (the closest the film comes to acknowledging any of this is Dre and Yella bemoaning having to wear matching silver satin jackets per Williams when spinning at his club). It’s understandable that Dre wouldn’t want a lot of time spent on this brief – and perhaps embarrassing – period of his career (he was only an official member of the group from 1984 – 1985) – but in omitting it, the film is refusing to acknowledge a fairly well-known chapter of Dre’s career and also making it seem like Dre went from spinning records in a local club to convincing Eazy to help him start a label.
Indeed, one night, Eazy catches Cube doing “that reality rap shit” with Dre and Yella at Williams’ place. Afterwards, Dre approaches him about investing some of his money into forming a record label. But Dre, in World Class Wreckin Cru, was already signed to a label, something also never discussed. I’m just saying; the guy had more going for him (including something of a following and a few hit songs already under his belt) and potential distribution outlets and industry connections than the film leads on.
But start a label Eazy does (it). Cube writes some rhymes, Dre makes the beats, and Eazy, in a great scene, becomes a rapper under trial by fire circumstances in the studio. Overnight they cut the Cube-penned, Dre-produced, Eazy-on-vocals track “Boyz-n-the-Hood” and release it locally to enthusiastic response. Cube brings his collaborator MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) into the fold and N.W.A is born. The single catches the ear of a music industry manager named Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) who convinces Eazy that he has the experience and connections to get that group major label distribution. N.W.A eagerly signs on with Heller and that’s when the real drama begins. The film then walks us step-by-step through the making of the group’s landmark “Straight Outta Compton” album, to their quick dissolution over contact disputes and accusations that Eazy and Heller are stealing profits from the group, to the individual members’ solo careers and trials and tribulations.
It’s a lot for any two-and-a-half hour film to cover, and Gray’s film mostly tackles the challenge by breezing through every highlight as quickly as possible. Sometimes he lingers on a moment long enough for it to make an impact (like the battle-rap rivalry between N.W.A and Cube after he leaves the group, reminding us that Cube’s “No Vaseline” might be history’s greatest “diss track”), but overall he’s moving at too breakneck a pace for events to register as compellingly as they might in a longer or differently structured film. Calling for a two-part saga ala “Kill Bill” might seem like a bit of a stretch for a hip hop biopic, but if that’s what the material calls for to do it justice, why not? Similarly, it certainly wouldn’t be the first three-plus hour-long movie in history if they chose to release Gray’s first cut, but I guess studio bean-counters must have felt differently.
Even the way the film documents the rise of rap music – specifically “reality” and gangster rap – at the time is a bit lazy and self-serving to the film’s subjects. The film doesn’t outright claim this, but I’d wager most viewers (especially those unfamiliar with gangster rap’s origins) will exit this film under the impression that N.W.A invented the subgenre of gangster rap and had few influences. Simply mentioning, say, Ice-T’s “6 ‘N the Mornin’”, would have been nice and is one of those moments that would only require a simple line or two of dialog yet go a long way towards making the film feel more genuine and complete. “Straight Outta Compton” is filled with minor dropped balls like that, and after a while, they start to add up.
There has been a good amount of talk about the film sidestepping some of N.W.A.’s members’ more documented warts – like Dr. Dre’s abusive nature and charges that Ice Cube’s lyrics are often misogynistic, racist and homophobic – but “Straight Outta Compton” is even skimpy on a lot of details and clearly Hollywood-izes some of the members’ watershed moments, which often makes the film feel disingenuous. Again, every biopic does this, but when these moments are so obvious, it pulls the viewer out of the film. Like when Dre finally becomes fed up with Suge Knight’s (a spot-on R. Marcus Taylor) criminal shenanigans; in one scene he’s a one-man ARMY going toe-to-toe with Suge’s brickwall gangster posse; in another he tells Suge he’s leaving Death Row in a moment that plays like Arnold Schwarzenegger dropping a one-liner before blowing away the bad guy. Of course, I have no inside information on how those moments played out in real life, but I think it’s a safe bet that they didn’t go down anywhere near as cinematically as portrayed here. Again, I understand this is what you sign up for going into a dramatized Hollywood biopic, but sometimes that doesn’t mean a film is absolved from criticism for being too damn obvious about it.
Well, thanks for hanging in there with me this far. Like I said, I realize this is all nit-picky and it’s also probably a pointless waste of a four-page rant because, like I said, despite all this, “Straight Outta Compton” is a hugely entertaining film that I recommend everyone see – rap and non-rap fans alike. One thing I can’t forget to mention is that the performances – all by veritable unknowns – are extraordinary; especially from the three principal players of Eazy, Dre, and Cube (by his own real-life son no less; how’s that for pressure – especially when your subject is not only your dad, but still alive to judge your work and a producer on film, so he’s also ostensibly your boss?). I could realistically see an Oscar nomination argument for any one of them. They don’t just look their parts, but realistically and sympathetically inhabit them. And Paul Giammati’s portrayal of Heller is just as good. I just wish the film were longer and paid more attention to certain important details.
So, by all means, rush out and see “Straight Outta Compton”. Just maybe watch “Boyz In the Hood” first and read N.W.A’s Wikipedia page when you get home to fill in the blanks.
3 Stars (Out of 4)
(Images Courtesy of Universal Pictures)