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STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON
August 28, 2015
“You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge”
Going in Straight Outta Compton, audiences can be forgiven for having some trepidation due to the way other similar films have been handled. This movie about the rise (and fall) of NWA, one the most influential music groups in Hip Hop history, doubles up as one of the best music biopics in recent years and a great urban drama with lots of elements that reference the current state of affairs in America (particularly with police).
Director F. Gary Gray (The Negotiator, The Italian Job, Law Abiding Citizens) manages to strike a balance between keeping it fairly real and yet still printing the legend, making the Hollywood version of the story. The film goes along at a terrific pace, showing the group forming through a shared vision of a different kind of music that more accurately represents their day to day reality.
Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) is shown to be a true music lover who, through his passion, creates new iconic sounds. Ice Cube (played by Ice Cube’s real son O’Shea Jackson Jr who looks spookily like his father) is an intelligent lyricist who creates the words to Dr. Dre’s beats through his experiences and passionate ideals about rights and freedom of speech.
Eazy E (Jason Mitchell) is the only real criminal in the group and it’s his ill-gotten gains that bankroll their first recordings. His initial reluctance to rap is played for brilliant laughs but Eazy E becomes a star very quickly because of his authentic and original voice. He also works with their manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) to do some dodgy dealing and create his label, Ruthless Records. The performances are strong though Jason Mitchell lacks the charisma and danger of Eazy E as a man and performer whilst Hawkins’ Dre is put through some pretty bad family scenes.
NWA’s music comes at a pivotal time in American history with many timely parralells to headlines from the last few years with regards to black communities and the police. It might have been more useful to spend more time on their experiences pre-NWA and how that informed their music but the film opts to get right into their music-making.
Although during their rise there is some fun to be had, it is quite refreshing that Gray’s direction opts to not sensationalize too much and does not linger too long on the parties nor overly glamorize the gangster or rap star lifestyles. However it doesn’t feel like we’re getting a fully accurate picture, but rather the PG-13 version. There is a sub-plot involving Dre’s family in particular that is played melodramatically with his mother being an unfortunately out and out cliché.
Later, as the characters fall out and their stories separate, we start running out of time and it becomes more a whistlestop of their fractured relationships and their careers post-NWA with cameos from Snoop and Tupac, we even see Ice Cube writing the script for Friday (1995) which F. Gary Gray directed. It is admirable and rare that all the main characters are treated fairly and each is given their own understandable motivations which makes for interesting viewing as you’re not sure who to root for with everyone being right according to their own way of looking at things.
The cost of this though is that the characters lose their teeth and some elements of the story are not examined as closely as they could be.
In particular Eazy E who was one the prototypes of the modern day rap mogul is not painted in some of the darker colors that his reputation might suggest.
The background hum of the emerging L.A. gang culture is only hinted at, particularly through the decked-out-in-red Suge Knight who is shown (not very surprisingly, considering the incident which occurred during the shoot) as a thug and a gangster who becomes the main antagonist near the end of the film. Dre’s motivations also remain a mystery.
Overall, Straight Outta Compton is a solid film and despite painting the picture in broad brushstrokes, it really does highlight a key point in the forming of modern music and it does manage to re-evaluate the legend of NWA and remind us all what a potent force they were.
Straight Outta Compton is released in UK cinemas on August 28th