Monday, August 17, 2015

Review: Straight Outta Compton (2015)

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

Rated R for language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence, and drug use

After years of great biopics about rock musicians, we finally have our first great hip-hop movie. Straight Outta Compton, the story of the rise and eventual breakup of N.W.A, isn't quite a perfect movie, but what is, really? When it comes to the important stuff -- the characters, their stories, the actors, the atmosphere, the style, and the music -- this movie knocked it out of the park and had me fully engrossed for the whole of its run time. It had its flaws, but all of them were easily forgiven against the backdrop of what it did so, so right. This is, without a doubt, one of the best movies of the year.

Starting in 1986, this film follows five young men from the streets of Compton, California -- Andre "Dr. Dre" Young, Eric "Eazy-E" Wright, O'Shea "Ice Cube" Jackson, Antoine "DJ Yella" Carraby, and Lorenzo "MC Ren" Patterson -- as they came together and formed the legendary hip-hop group Niggaz Wit Attitudes, or N.W.A. We see their breakthrough with their first studio album Straight Outta Compton, which provoked a firestorm of controversy thanks to its militancy, its anti-police attitudes, and its perceived glorification of gang violence. From there, we see their spats with their manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), the man who got them their breakthrough but who soon turned out to be screwing them over, leading Ice Cube to leave the group and start his own label to release a solo album that contained no shortage of diss tracks aimed at his former friends. We see Dr. Dre's emerging split from Eazy-E, who had taken a leading role in the group that seemed to be at the expense of the other members, and who enjoyed a much cozier relationship with Jerry than the other members. Finally, Eazy-E's failing health, the result of HIV infection brought on by his promiscuous, party-hard lifestyle, triggers a reckoning in everybody involved that convinces them to put aside their differences and make up. All this occurs against the backdrop of race relations in the late '80s and early '90s, with N.W.A becoming the voice of many disaffected African Americans and a bogeyman for white Americans, especially in the wake of the Rodney King trial in 1992.

Even at two-and-a-half hours, this film doesn't quite cover all the ground of N.W.A and its history. MC Ren and DJ Yella seem to get short shrift compared to Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Eazy-E (something that MC Ren has voiced his displeasure about), but most perplexing to me was the omission of one of the main controversies that dogged N.W.A and gangsta rap in general in the '90s: the treatment of women in many songs. N.W.A was a very macho band, something that is very much on display here, and when they rapped about women, they were portrayed as either sex objects or gold diggers. This attitude wasn't all for show; you won't see here the incident where Dr. Dre went full Ike Turner on a female reporter in 1990. It's strange how, for a film that focuses heavily on the controversy that dogged N.W.A throughout their career, they choose to strictly focus on the controversies that would make them sympathetic to modern audiences (i.e. their railing against racism and police brutality), while ignoring the ones that are still very much live wires in American society today.

Okay, now that I've got my few problems with this film out of the way, let's roll. You could probably chalk the above up to the fact that Ice Cube and Dr. Dre themselves, as well as Eazy-E's widow Tomica Woods-Wright, were heavily involved in the production, and they were likely going out of their way to put on their best faces. And in the end, I can't fault them too much for it, because they still managed to deliver a cast of well-rounded characters in a very compelling story. Ice Cube's son, O'Shea Jackson, Jr., plays his father on screen here, while the rest of the band and their friends and associates are composed mostly of unknowns. All of them do great work in bringing to life both their characters and the general vibe of the world they lived in. You feel the ambition of these guys, the anger at the world around them that they poured into their music, and towards the end their remorse at their broken relationships, wondering what they could've done better. Even with the film's sanding off of the band's rougher edges, they're still shown to be flawed human beings. Ice Cube hurls anti-Semitic insults at Jerry in a diss track directed at him and his former bandmates, but it's shown to be more out of ignorance and bravado than genuine bigotry. I grew to both hate and then pity Eazy-E, at first thinking he was screwing his bandmates over but then learning that he too was being manipulated by Jerry. It's a sprawling plot with many threads, but director F. Gary Gray and writers Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff manage to pull them all together, finding a dramatic through line that connects them into a single gripping story. Even Jerry isn't portrayed as a total slimeball -- sure, he was exploiting the band for his own gain, but it's made clear that without him, they would've continued toiling away in South Central nightclubs instead of hitting the big time. You have to give props to Paul Giamatti (the only real "name" actor in the film) for making a character who should've been so unlikable into a genuine human being even with his faults.

And of course, we get to the music. N.W.A's output remains some of the most notorious hip-hop of all time, and the film takes every opportunity to not only put it on full display, but weave it into the story. The band called it "reality rap", a reflection of their rough upbringing and the things they saw growing up and living in Compton, so for them, their music is an integral part of their character and personality. If there was an opportunity to use N.W.A's music to tell their story, the filmmakers readily capitalized upon it. For instance, I'm pretty sure the scene where they write "Fuck tha Police" as a result of getting harassed by cops on the way to the studio didn't happen exactly like that, but you can imagine that scene as a pastiche of a lifetime of similar incidents. Likewise, when Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg first meet in the early days of Death Row Records, what better way to demonstrate their friendship than to show them in the studio recording "Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang"? You can't have a good musician biopic without good music, and the performances that make up large sections of the film are half the reason to see this movie. Through them, you feel the power of N.W.A and its members, and are shown why they were considered so dangerous far better than a mere biography could.

Score: 5 out of 5

Even with its occasional blind spots, Straight Outta Compton is everything I could want in a great music biopic. Not only do you get a great soundtrack, you get the outstanding and well-told story that's wrapped up in it. This movie sets the gold standard for all future hip-hop films.

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