Published on September 1st, 2015 | by Michael0
Straight Outta Compton Review
‘Straight Outta Compton, a motherfucker named Ice Cube’. As well as four others – Dr Dre, DJ Yella, MC Ren and Eazy motherfucking E. Straight Outta Compton is director F. Gary Gray’s attempted to tell the story of these five young men, known collectively as NWA, who emerged from their LA ghetto in the late 1980s with some of the most powerful hip hop ever heard. Biopics are tricky beasts at the best of times and Straight Outta Compton is no exception. For one thing, the music of NWA is still revered, especially their debut album which gives the movie its name. For another, Ice Cube and Dr Dre both hold enormous clout in the entertainment industry today, whereas the unfortunate Eazy-E died a long time ago.
The film’s opens superbly, showing a young Eric Wright (aka Eazy-E, played by Jason Mitchell) selling drugs in a crack house that is about to be raided by the pumped up LAPD. This scene plays like a straight drugs and cops thriller. It’s more akin to something like End of Watch than your typical musical biopic. These intensity is vital, because it helps to set up the origins of NWA, their politics and their backgrounds. The film then cuts to a young Dr Dre (Corey Hawkins) listening to records – his LPs artfully strewn across the floor so that there’s a quick visual shorthand for Dre’s well known influences (Parliament, James Brown, Zapp etc). Finally Ice Cube is introduced, played by O’Shea Jackson Jr, son of the real Ice Cube. The resemblance is so uncanny that he looks like he’s been cloned from the man rather than just fathered by him.
Each of these three men brings something to the table – Dr Dre can craft the beats, Ice Cube is already a proficient lyricist and Eazy-E will front the money, earned through his dope slinging. Joining the nascent group is Dre’s fellow DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr in a sorely needed comic relief role) and Mc Ren (Aldis Hodge) who also writes lyrics. The early success of an Eazy-E solo record brings the group to the attention of Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) a white Jewish man who convinces the group that his connections can break down doors that would otherwise be closed to five black kids from one of LA’s most notorious areas. Everything is in place then for NWA to storm the world, save for one thing, that killer stand-out track. Fortunately, inspiration arrives in the unlikely form of the LAPD. After one too many harassments at the hands of LA’s finest, Ice Cube pens the immortal ‘Fuck Tha Police’ and the rest is history.
The film bypasses the album ‘Straight Outta Compton’ taking the US by storm and moves immediately to the huge nationwide tour the band takes to promote the album. There are hijinks aplenty on the road with Eazy in particular enjoying himself but trouble starts brewing, too. First of all, the FBI asks that the band cease playing ‘Fuck Tha Police’. Then the Detroit police promise to stop a show if they perform their signature tune. In the resulting riot, all five members are arrested. Throughout all of this, Ice Cube begins to suspect that Eazy and Jerry aren’t being straight with the rest of them, and finally Dre hears that his little brother has been killed.
As you can probably tell, the film has a lot of ground to cover and even with the healthy 147 minute run time it struggles to fit everything in. Indeed, the film seems very insular, dealing only with the members of the group (though Ren and Yella barely get a look in) and not with the effect of the music on the fans. I was expecting shots of wide-eyed kids trying to buy a record by a band called Niggaz With Attitude, or maybe scenes of white Texan kids attending the band’s show in Houston, but we see nothing of that. What we do get is a good peek at the creative process (chiefly Dre laying down beats for Cube, Eazy and Ren, then later for Tupac and Snoop) but also the machinations behind the scenes in the shady world of record labels. The film shows us how the hottest rap group in the world were torn asunder, both by Jerry Heller’s manipulations of Eazy and by the thuggish Suge Knight (R Marcus Taylor) who is prepared to do anything to get Dre out of his contract. Knight is portrayed as an out an out villain throughout and in a grisly case of life imitating art imitating life, the real Knight was arrested for a hit and run incident that left a man dead following an altercation on the set of the film.
The story of NWA is a fascinating one, their music often brilliant, the characters compelling. Even so it would appear to be an impossible job to make a thoroughly convincing film of it all. Those still here are too powerful to piss off, especially Dr Dre who became hip hop’s first billionaire when he sold his Beats by Dre company to Apple. Indeed as has been widely reported, his violence against women is not mentioned in the film at all. Indeed, the issue of misogyny is one that threatens to torpedo Straight Outta Compton throughout. In the opening scene, a young woman is told to get the visiting Eazy a beer, only for him to tell the bitch to sit herself down. The depicition hardly gets better from there, with women largely reduced to the role of naked revelers on tour buses and hotels, although there are more positive female figures, particularly Dre’s mother and the significant others of Eazy and Ice Cube. Of the group, it is the deceased Eazy-E who must carry much of the can for the group’s disintegration. While he is given all due props for his role in founding the group and moving them forward, we are left in no doubt that it was his debauchery, as well as his business relationship with Heller which led first to Ice Cube leaving and then to the group breaking up altogether.
The film also looks like a longer cut must once have existed as several ideas are raised and never followed through on. For example, early on Ice Cube makes it clear he is already in a crew, which forces and uncomfortable Eazy is to get on the mic. Moments later Ice Cube is a fully fledged member, his old crew forgotten. Similarly after Eazy is diagnosed with AIDS his immediate concern is that his pregnant girlfriend may have contracted the virus. Straight Outta Compton doesn’t let us know. (In reality, Tomica Woods was fine. She married Eazy shortly before his death and took over his label).
The film ends with footage from the real NWA, from their early music videos, through Ice Cube’s appearance in the Friday films to Dre’s sale of Beats. Overall Straight Outta Compton is very enjoyable – well shot with compelling leads, a good story and great music. But it’s also ultimately unsatisfying and a bit cynical. Dre and Ice Cube come off a untouchable heroes with only a slight mention of Ice Cube’s anti-Semitism on the record ‘No Vaseline’. The group’s troubles are blamed on Heller, Knight and to some degree Eazy. It’s hard to shake the feeling that the film skates by thanks to the brilliance of NWA rather than on its own merits.