Saturday, August 22, 2015

'Straight Outta Compton' review

We've seen an insane amount of music biopics over the years, but oddly enough, there has been a surprising lack of films chronicling the success stories of famous rappers. With two superstar figures behind it, Straight Outta Compton is the first major, big-budget rap biopic in what could end up being a large string of them. A very comprehensive look at the career of Compton-based rap group N.W.A., Straight Outta Compton is packed with plenty of engaging material- from the group's street origins, to the first N.W.A. tour, to the break up and diss tracks, and finally, to the betrayal of their manager, and the tragic death of Eazy E. The film covers a lot of ground over the 147 minute runtime, and it is a tad overlong. But no matter- Straight Outta Compton is an exhilarating film. Both an endlessly fascinating look at the hip-hop world and the people who created it, and a look at the racial problems that have plagued America for years, this film is complex, nuanced and most of all, entertaining from start to finish. It's a pure blast of energy.

Directed by F. Gary Gray, Compton is the story of N.W.A., the famous rap gang from the 1980's that created the genre of gangsta rap and kickstarted the careers of icons like Ice Cube (played by O'Shea Jackson Jr.), Eazy E (Jason Mitchell) and Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins). The group didn't last long, but their impact was enormous and their bond remained tight as the years went on. The film begins in Compton and gives us a look at the environment that helped to form the group's famous songs. We see the gangs, the drugs (Easy E actually starts as a drug dealer), the violence and the police brutality that shaped the members of N.W.A. as they grew up. It gives some important perspective to why songs like "F**k tha Police" and "Dopeman" resonated like they did.

From there, the film explores a lot of conventional biopic territory and plenty of fresh new ground. This is undoubtedly the story of Cube, Dre and Eazy (with a little bit of screentime for DJ Yella and MC Ren), but it's also a reflection on the time period that created this genre, and the reverberations that we're still feeling in America today. This is not an intimate, quiet character study like Love & Mercy. This is an expansive film with a massively epic scope that covers a daunting amount of territory, creating a fascinating picture of the world of the 1980's and 1990's. As Ice Cube said about the film "I don't know any other movie where you can mix Gangster Rap, the F.B.I., L.A. Riots, H.I.V. and f**king feuding with each other." This fundamental cultural scope provides the basis for this film and it's what makes Straight Outta Compton one of the best films of the year.

The soundtrack certainly helps. N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton is probably one of the best rap albums of all time, with a variety of fresh beats and terrific lyrics. The energy of the music carries over to the film, with a constant, pulsing soundtrack in the background. When Ice Cube performs "Gangsta Gangsta" at a club early in the film, there's a power to it that is undeniable. And while the focus is on the characters and the developing rap scene, the music is always there. The way that Gray matches the songs with the way that the film is unfolding is simply masterful (I particularly loved the scene that depicted the creation of "F**k tha Police" in the aftermath of a brutal police attack).

The one troubling aspect about this film for many people will be how close the subjects were to the production. F. Gary Gray has been a friend of Ice Cube for a long time (he directed Friday, which starred Cube), Dre and Cube produced the film, and O'Shea Jackson Jr., Cube's son, plays him in the film. It's all a bit self-congratulatory and that has already proven controversial with many people, as the film doesn't exactly dwell on the negative aspects of the group's personalities- Dre's domestic violence incidents, lyrics accused of being homophobic and sexist, etc.

But as problematic as that may be, I can't help but believe that these were the right people to tell this story. F. Gary Gray, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre were all there when the events of this film were going down. They saw the Rodney King aftermath, they witnessed the birth of hip-hop, they went on tour as the FBI went after them. All of these things happened to them, and although the film is ultimately about the relationship between the members of this group, it's also a celebration and reflection of the world we live in today and the way that these guys shaped that world. Straight Outta Compton is less about focusing on the men behind the act than it is about depicting a changing world and telling the story of the five guys who were at the center of it all.

The result of that is a grounded realism to the film that counters the flashy rap performances and lavish parties. The opening scenes of Straight Outta Compton depict a dark and violent place. When we first meet Ice Cube, he's on a bus as a gang member threatens to shoot a teenager in the head. And when we're introduced to Eazy E, he's in the middle of a drug deal gone wrong, as the police are busting through the house with a tank. That's the world that we're thrust into right away. And even though the film becomes more and more outlandish as it goes on, there's an element of authenticity to it that makes it work.

The performances are incredibly authentic as well, with all three actors doing a terrific job of both channeling the men that they're playing and bringing an element of depth to their role. Dre, as portrayed by Corey Hawkins, is the center of the group, surrounding by the more explosive Cube and Eazy. Hawkins does a good job of making Dre feel like the most human of the group. O'Shea Jackson Jr. looks remarkably like his dad, and that similarity comes across in his performance in ways beyond appearance. He captures the anger, the frustration and ultimately, the tenderness of Ice Cube and it's a terrific portrayal overall.

If Hawkins's Dre is the center of group, then Eazy E is the volatile, whipsmart emotional core of the film. Jason Mitchell is brilliant as Eazy and he brings a lot to character. Eazy comes off as small, but mighty- of all the guys in the group, he'd be the quickest to get into a fight. He's the businessman and in the end, he's the guy that divides the group and brings it back together. Mitchell has a scene late in the film that is emotionally devastating, and his relationship with Jerry Heller, played by Paul Giamatti, is equally tragic. Heller was a father figure to Eazy, but he betrayed the group in many ways and his actions kickstart the second half of the film. Heller and Mitchell have a natural chemistry and it works during both the good and bad times.

If the film is a tad overlong, it's not because of a lack of interesting material. After N.W.A. crumbles (which happens about halfway through the film), Straight Outta Compton pushes on and focuses on the aftermath of that seminal album. Death Row Records, Suge Knight, Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur, Friday, L.A. Riots, Rodney King- we see all of this over the nine year span that the film covers and it's equal parts invigorating and daunting. The second half of the film gives us the chance to examine the importance of that tour and that album and how N.W.A. shaped the decade that followed, which makes for some truly compelling scenes.

The relevance of this story is also critical. While critics touted the way that 42 and Selma felt relevant to today's society, I didn't quite feel the same way. With Straight Outta Compton, I truly felt that there was a deliberate attempt to make this film feel not like a period piece, but a movie about today's issues. We're dealing with a world where police officers are looking worse and worse every week and protests are erupting across the country. N.W.A's messages have never felt more relevant than they have now. And even though the film's latter half deals mostly with the characters, the infighting and the rap world, there's a constant ripple effect of real-life events that is truly felt by the people on screen.

Straight Outta Compton combines great performances, fantastic music and a topical message for a firecracker of a film that is entertaining throughout. Some biopics and dramas delve deep into their subjects without much entertainment value or emotional reward in the end. Straight Outta Compton is a certifiable summer blockbuster and it's one that packs an emotional wallop. Succeeding on a character, atmospheric and sonic level, Straight Outta Compton is one of the most purely enjoyable biopics I've seen recently.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                                 (9/10)

Image Credits: Forbes, Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Indiewire, Joblo

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