Rated R for language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence and drug use.
Running time: 147 minutes.
Three and a half stars out of four.
For a movie about a groundbreaking, risk-taking group like N.W.A., “Straight Outta Compton” is surprisingly conventional in its adherence to music biopic tropes. The rise-fall-rise-again structure, the groupies and the drugs, the beefs over money and acclaim and the general mayhem that gets magnified when egos get in the way — it’s all there. You’ve seen it all a million times before (which is why the parody “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” which I love dearly, is so brilliantly spot-on).
But in its execution, “Straight Outta Compton” is so electrifying and so powerfully acted, you probably won’t mind.
Director F. Gary Gray starts strong by depicting the seminal rap group’s early days on the mean streets of L.A. with great intimacy and verve. (The great Matthew Libatique, Darren Aronofsky’s longtime cinematographer, bathes these mid-’80s scenes in a warm haze of late afternoon sunlight, pot smoke and nostalgia.) Seeing young, scrappy Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) hustling to make a name for themselves is a visceral thrill, and all three of these key roles were expertly cast. It may sound like a gimmick to have Ice Cube’s son playing Ice Cube — and damned if he doesn’t look exactly like a younger, thinner version of his dad — but he’s also got the glare and the swagger down cold, and he more than rises to this formidable challenge in both the dramatic moments and the stage performances.
“Straight Outta Compton” is surprisingly funny off the top, though, as these guys and their pals (including Neil Brown Jr. as DJ Yella and Aldis Hodge as MC Ren) tool on each other mercilessly both in and out of the studio while recording their first tracks. Paul Giamatti is also beautifully brash as their decidedly uncool, white manager, Jerry Heller, the first person who ever believed in N.W.A. (and, later, a surprisingly moving source of ambiguity and poignancy).
But even through the good times and wild parties (where women dismayingly are depicted as little more than objects and playthings) as the group’s fame and influence are on the rise, there’s a constant, simmering undercurrent of tension. Between poverty and drugs, gang battles and police brutality — the very fiber of the rap group’s lyrics, er go we have a little ditty called “Fuck Tha Police” — there’s the pervasive threat that something terrible could happen at any point. And it often does.
Sometimes the highs and lows coexist in the same moment, as in the recreation of the notorious night in 1989 when N.W.A. performed “Fuck Tha Police” at a packed Detroit concert — which they’d explicitly been told not to do — sparking rioting and chaos. In contrast with the first part of the film, this segment is glossy, crisp and vibrant; it’s such a massive blast and it’s so immersive, it makes you feel like you’re a part of the audience, or at least wish you had been.
The pace slows, though, as the three begin mistrusting not only each other but also their manager. It’s no less significant in the group’s development — after all, these rifts led to Ice Cube and Dre forging formidable solo careers. But the film’s final third turns quieter, less flashy and more introspective, especially as the once-dynamic Eazy-E finds his health failing him. (He died of AIDS in 1995 at just 31.)
Yes, there is some revisionist history going on, as is so often the case in bringing a famous person’s life to the screen. As my friend and fellow critic Andrew Barker points out, this is glaringly true in the scene where Dre “comes up with” the synth riff for “Nuthin’ But a G Thang”; also, Dre’s history of violence against women has been omitted entirely. (He, Ice Cube and Eazy-E’s widow serve as producers on the film.) And if you’re a neophyte and don’t know the significance of Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) or Tupac Shakur (Marcc Rose) in this whole twisted, hip-hop saga, the script from Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff isn’t about to go out of its way to enlighten you.
At the same time, the film unfortunately couldn’t be more relevant; the same bloody racial struggles with police Ice Cube wrote about nearly 30 years ago are still going on today in cities across the nation, which gives it an added a layer of pointed commentary.
None of that stops “Straight Outta Compton” from being entertaining as hell, though, from start to finish. And based on the screening I attended, it’s very easy to imagine sing-along showings cropping up for years to come.