F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton does an admirable job exploring the rise and fall of the finest rap group in history, but this 2015 motion picture can’t help but fall into the typical biopic traps. That’s not to say it’s not an effective or invigorating movie, with some stellar performances and tremendous scenes jammed into the mix. But something’s missing, something that leaves it shy of greatness.
Featuring a screenplay by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, Straight Outta Compton has an authentic feel even as it sidesteps some of the trickier moments in the group’s history. Of course, having Ice Cube and Dr. Dre among the many producers will do that. There are significant gaps in the timeline, as one would expect, but the movie still speaks to the revolutionary quality of the one and only N.W.A.
The picture opens in 1986 with Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell) selling drugs and experiencing the brutality of the Los Angeles Police Department. Along with his pal MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), he meets up with Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) at a club and they eventually bat around the idea of starting a record label.
This idea snowballs and eventually Eazy-E is in the booth rapping over Dre’s beats. Eazy-E meets with Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who wants to manage the blossoming group on the strength of hearing “Boyz-n-the-Hood.” Things blow up from there, with the recording of the iconic Straight Outta Compton album, the appearance of Suge Knight (R. Marcus Taylor) and all sorts of contract tomfoolery.
Gray’s experience with many of the real life counterparts certainly serves this project well. He directed Ice Cube in 1995’s Friday, for instance, and helmed a number of music videos for both Cube and Dr. Dre. His hand is a steady one, although there aren’t many aesthetic adventures to take. He keeps things looking relatively clear-eyed and sleek, whether he spins through sapphire pool parties or dim ghettos.
There’s a lot of talk of money and contracts in Straight Outta Compton and that threatens to undo the power of the social and political thrust behind N.W.A. It also tilts the picture’s plot strangely, with a great deal of time spent post-N.W.A. It flitters through its scenes with Knight, bathing him in devilish red with an irate dog always nearby. And it builds to the maudlin death ending with Eazy-E in a hospital bed.
But the flaws almost wilt away under the power of the performances, which are worthy from top to bottom. The highlight is Jackson, Jr., who has the distinction of playing his father. He nails it with humour and sublime pacing, overcoming some sloppy moments in the script to own Ice Cube with his own ferocity, his own energy, his own stroke.
Giamatti is good as Heller, a man who kind of gets hung out to dry in confusing fashion. The real Heller is apparently suing the makers of Straight Outta Compton, but Giamatti’s Heller has more than enough heft in his early scenes. One of the best moments works like a charm when he voices his moral outrage and trembling incredulity as N.W.A. is planted on the ground by cops outside the studio.
The aforementioned scenes of moral outrage, whether from Giamatti’s Heller or Hawkins’ Dre or anyone else for that matter, give Straight Outta Compton its most convincing qualities. Issues of police brutality will always seem apt as long as there are broken bones in American “justice,” but there’s something altogether therapeutic when Cube drops the bomb.
This moment, this form of musical justice, proves the importance of N.W.A. way more than focusing on breakups and makeups. And these moments of outrage, whether leading up to the L.A. riots or focusing on the Detroit disturbance, are what make this such a powerful and “dangerous” selection of artists.
There was something caustic about N.W.A., about the spirit they pulled from the streets and waved in front of the faces of suburban youth in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They bred a cultural movement, poured gas on the fire. They shouted, cursed, raged. They took risks. And while Straight Outta Compton doesn’t exactly boast those assets, it manages a well-acted and well-made trip all the same.