Sunday 24 June 2018

Movie Review: Straight Outta Compton (2015)

A biographical drama set in the world of rap music, Straight Outta Compton is a hard hitting history of the band that controversially popularized gangsta rap.

It's 1986 in Compton, a troubled city in Los Angeles county, where gangs and crime are part of daily life and black youth are easily sucked into the turmoil. Eric "Eazy-E" Wright (Jason Mitchell) is a drug dealer, and friends with disc jockey Andre "Dr. Dre" Young (Corey Hawkins), who is already a young father, and O'Shea "Ice Cube" Jackson (O'Shea Jackson Jr.) who writes rap lyrics inspired by street life.

Along with MC Ren and DJ Yella, they form the group N.W.A. (for "Niggaz Wit Attitudes") and record the song Boyz-n-the-Hood with Eazy E on vocals. A local hit, the track catches the attention of manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), and he signs the band to a record deal, although Heller cozies up to Easy E and ignores formalizing contractual arrangements with the other members. The group records the album Straight Outta Compton, including Ice Cube's controversial track Fuck Tha Police, inspired by the continuous and unjustified police harassment experienced by black youths.

The album is a controversial hit, the gangsta rap subgenre is born, and the group members experience success and fame beyond their wildest dreams. But bitter arguments about money soon turn the friends against each other, with Ice Cube the first to break ranks and launch a solo career.

Directed by F. Gary Gray and co-produced by Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, Straight Outta Compton is an engrossing and sometimes harrowing story about the power of music to launch a million conversations, and the destructive forces of extreme wealth and greed that come attached to fame and fortune. The film tracks the origins of a movement born from the intolerable Black inner-city experience, gangsta rap bursting out of the chest of a self-feeding cycle of hopelessness, poverty, and crime. N.W.A. decided to honestly rap about life on the streets outside their homes, and the imagery was decidedly not pretty but also impossible to ignore.

The film is long at 147 minutes, perhaps tries to tell too many stories, and the final quarter goes relatively soft and mushy compared to what preceded it. With Dr. Dre and Ice Cube behind the project, their perspective receives precedence while colleagues MC Ren and DJ Yella appear short-changed.

But despite some weaknesses there is no doubting the pure strength of the core story. As the world consumed the ballads of Whitney Houston and Lionel Ritchie and the pop tunes of Pet Shop Boy, Mr. Mister, and The Bangles with blissful ignorance, a musical seismic shift was rumbling into being. N.W.A. took rap lyrics to a new extreme of provocation, popularizing a subgenre fuelled by anger, in the process causing widespread outrage and gaining unprecedented notoriety.

It was a wild ride for a group of young men, and it is no surprise that internal divisions and external influences rapidly tore the group apart. The film presents Jerry Heller in a generally unsympathetic light, and there are other unhelpful meddlers looking out for their own bottom line in the form of Priority Records executive Bryan Turner (Tate Ellington) and Death Row records founder Marion "Suge" Knight (R. Marcos Taylor).

But regardless of the causes, ultimately N.W.A. proved to be just an incubating starting point for the varied and successful careers of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, and the band was only going to ride its initial burst of enraged intensity for so long. The split represents a chaotic highlight in the film, a momentus release of venom, the former friends dissing each other on rival records, the film soaring to a rowdy and profanity-dominated apex.

Straight Outta Compton finds several other peaks, including a Detroit concert where the local police attempt to prevent the group from performing their most notorious hit, Ice Cube unleashing his frustration at a record company office, and Dr. Dre finally having enough of the aimless decadence purchased with too much money. The representations of the songwriting and recording creative process are functional, and several run-ins with law enforcement on the streets of Los Angeles are captured with raw emotion, setting the stage for the infamous Rodney King beating, which here serves as an effective I-told-you-so backdrop to the formative N.W.A experience.

Jason Mitchell, Corey Hawkins and O'Shea Jackson Jr. (Ice Cube's son) are all excellent in bringing the young N.W.A members to life and staying with them as they mature through nine years of insane highs and lows. Paul Giamatti is effective as Jerry Heller, a manager with enough vision to understand that he may have found the next big thing, but always with a self-serving glint in his eye.

Boisterous, loud and coarse, Straight Outta Compton is about voices silenced no more, consequences be damned, and both the personal and broader consequences are plentiful and often painful.

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  1. Another great review! And another movie I really need to see again. Mitchell was the true highlight for me here. I have no idea where he came from, but he CRUSHED it as Eazy-E.

    1. Thanks! Great performances all around in this one. And what a story.

  2. That last sentence sums it up perfectly. It's a phenomenal film with great performances all around and it really feels true to the group's legacy.

    1. Not really being a fan of the music genre, I was really surprised how good (and powerful) this film is.


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