Review: 'Straight Outta Compton' is largely successful pop mythmaking
There are few movie forms more stagnant than the biopic. I am not a fan for the most part, and it takes something special to knock me out of that mindset. While "Straight Outta Compton" plays by the rules for the most part, the film has a great cast and an undeniable energy that drew me in, and considering we're talking about events from a quarter-century ago, there is a surprisingly urgent undertone to the entire enterprise that reminds us that we have not made as much progress as we'd like to think as a culture.
Screenwriter Andrea Berloff made her feature debut nine years ago with "World Trade Center," and she hasn't had a produced credit since. She had an impossible job here, trying to boil down the rise and fall of an iconic band to a mere 142 minutes. Jonathan Herman is co-credited for the script, with S. Leigh Savidge and Alan Wenkus both credited with story, and I'm not surprised it went through a lot of handsFor the most part, the film follows a familiar shape, with the early rise of the band inevitably playing as more fun and thrilling than the later years, and that's sort of unavoidable. Director F. Gary Gray has directed the film as modern myth, charting the major highs and lows of the band through the filter of knowing exactly what's going to happen to each of them. This is a movie that is not afraid to foreshadow like crazy, and in some cases, that was part of the fun. Even before he speaks a word, the appearance of Snoop Dogg (Keith Stanfield) for the first time got a big laugh out of the audience, and likewise, the moment Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) shows up at the edge of the frame, it's like the first time the fin breaks water in "Jaws."
The film opens with Eric "Eazy-E" Wright (Jason Mitchell) dropping off some coke and demanding his money at a crack house in Compton. When the cops show up with a tank and a battering ram, he runs for his life, and as he vanishes over a rooftop a few doors down, the main title comes up. It's a great opening, and right away, cinematographer Matthew Libatique is on fire, offering up a vision of LA from the late '80s through the mid-'90s that is burnished by memory and by the iconography of N.W.A. In some ways, this feels as much like a tribute to the wave of movies that erupted in the wake of Singleton's "Boyz In The Hood" as it does like an attempt to capture the way things were at the time. We meet O'Shea "Ice Cube" Jackson (O'Shea Jackson Jr.) as he's being bused from his high school back to his home in inner-city LA, and we meet Dre (Corey Hawkins) as he argues with his mother about his future. Already, Cube's writing rhymes about the world around him and Dre's taking all the music in his collection and finding ways to deconstruct it and rebuild it into something that sounds new. Dj Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), The D.O.C. (Marlon Yates Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) are also part of the early days as they start to figure out their sound, eventually coming together on a track that they feel compelled to release, forming a label called Ruthless. There's not a lot of emphasis on Arabian Prince (Brandon LaFourche), just the first sign that what we're going to see here is the official version as written by the winners, and in this case, that would be Dre and Cube, who are firmly in control of the narrative here.
Paul Giamatti plays Jerry Heller, who helps get Ruthless off the ground when he sees how well the self-pressed "Boyz-n-the-Hood" is doing. It's interesting to see how the film handles the specific details of the early dealings between Eazy, Heller, and Cube, since much of that was the cause of huge friction between the band later. What the film gets absolutely right is the atmosphere that the band reacted to, the zeitgeist they tapped. When I was still in Florida, around '87 and '88, I managed a theater with a guy named Reggie. Reggie was considering how to make his own money to start recording his own music, and he was a voracious listener to everything he could get his hands on. When we would take fast food runs from the theater, different people would drive at different times, and whenever I'd ride with Reggie, he'd play me the newest thing he had. When he played me "Straight Outta Compton" for the first time, we stayed in the car once we were back in the parking lot, and we ate our food and we smoked a joint and I heard "Fuck tha Police" for the first time and it blew my mind. It was pure and simple punk rock. It was raw and it sounded amazing, and it felt like something new. I think the next time I felt like that was the first time I heard "Pretty Hate Machine" a few years later. I didn't have anything in common with the life experience described by "Straight Outta Compton," but it sounded to me like it was hard won and honest. I remember the controversy once pop culture started to catch up with the album months later, the discussion of how they were glamorizing violence, and it felt even then like the mainstream recoiling because they weren't ready to accept what they were being told. It was funny. It was brash. It was both autobiography and fiction based on observation. It was offensive, but not because of the language used. It was offensive because it painted a picture of life in Los Angeles that was at odds with the narrative sold by the media.
At its best, "Straight Outta Compton" the movie serves as a sort of commentary track to not only that album, but also for "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted," "100 Miles and Runnin'", and, in maybe my favorite scene in the film, the "Death Certificate" track "No Vaseline." Now's the time to bring up the O'Shea Jackson Jr. casting, I guess. I didn't read about the cast at the start of the film, so I didn't know who he was, and from the very beginning of the film, I was dumbstruck by how visually right he was for the role. He's got the same eyebrows, more expressive than Nicholson's, and the exact same smile, and when he finally hits the stage and lays it down, he does a damn good Cube. So of course he's Ice Cube's son. The only thing that distinguishes them is that Cube had those permanently round baby cheeks, no matter what he did, so that scowl was even better. O'Shea Jr. is thinner, but he is almost constantly so close to the way his father looked that it can be startling. Just looking like his dad isn't enough, though. He gives a very good performance, and Jason Mitchell is equally good as Eazy. Once he throws in with Heller, he starts to change, and Giamatti plays Heller as an insidious presence.
The film has, as one might suspect, a pretty great soundtrack. I think as the film wears on, it gets less focused, and it shortchanges some of the characters in an effort to wrap certain arcs up quickly. But cumulatively, the film makes some smart points about the Los Angeles that gave birth to N.W.A. and the moment in time that they captured with the Rodney King trials and the LA riots playing out during the film. I was in LA for this period, and the film gets the feeling of it right. They don't paint themselves as saints, and while some people will be upset about things that are left out (people looking for any mention of Dee Barnes will not be happy), and there are real conversations to be had about what does get mentioned and how, there are still plenty of tough moments that they give their full weight.
It's a longer film than I expected, but it moves, start to finish, and right down to the end, it keeps offering up amazing takes on the songs, and new faces show up like Tupac (Marcc Rose), along with moments like Cube sitting at home working on a screenplay and laughing about the line, "You got knocked the fuck out!", something I'm guessing every "Friday" fan will cackle when they hear. Overall, I feel like this film authentic to the way Cube and Dre view things. This is the closest we're going to get to the absolutely true story, and I think it's important to see how hard it was for them to stand up and do what they did. I wish we could look at the sequence where they're warned not to play "Fuck tha Police" or they'll be arrested and the build up with people talking about they are unacceptable role model because their music "promotes violence" and created a "significant safety risk" are events that could never happen today. But then we see those exact words used by Chicago Mayor Emmanuel in his explanation of the banning of a holographic performance by Chief Keef in Chicago just last week. That's sort of insane, and yet it felt urgent tonight in a way I didn't expect.
"Straight Outta Compton" may not fully shake off many of the restrictions of the biopic form, but if anyone deserves to have some mythmaking done for them, it's N.W.A. And if ever there's been a time to raise some hands in the air, middle finger up, and give a rousing call-and-response to "Fuck tha Police," it feels like it's right now. Both of its time and of the moment, "Straight Outta Compton" is potent and largely successful, and makes a hell of a case for why this was a story worth telling.
"Straight Outta Compton" opens in theaters August 14, 2015.