Straight Outta Compton and all the images you see in this review are owned by Universal Pictures
Directed by F Gary Gray
Does this count as the beginning of Oscar season? I mean we ARE in August and this is a biopic about famous yet controversial musicians! What more could the academy be looking for!? This retelling of the history of NWA directed by F Gary Gray (because who the hell else would you get to direct this) has gotten a lot of buzz recently and is already a certifiable smash hit at the box office with an opening weekend of over SIXTY MILLION which is nearly unheard of for a rated R movie. So what is it about this movie that’s gotten so many people’s attention? Is it the controversial nature of its subjects? Maybe it’s out of pure nostalgia that people are checking out this movie about a rap group from the nineties. That basically how Dragon Ball Z managed to make it in the top ten on a limited release. Well for whatever reason this movie has connected with the movie going public, the question remains as to whether or not it’s any good, especially considering that the movie is produced by the people it’s portraying which can be a bad sign for any biopic. Does this manage to be a fascinating examination of America’s scariest musicians, or will it be an endless parade of self-congratulations for a bunch of guys who have long outlived their relevance? Let’s find out!!
The movie begins with our three principal players Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr) living their lives in Compton California and writing music whenever they have some free time. After one of their songs hits it big on the local stations, they get the attention of a music manager (Jerry Heller played by Paul Giamatti) who puts them on the fast track to stardom and we watch the rise of one of America’s most notorious musical acts become legendary and the behind the scenes conflicts that eventually led to their downfall.
This movie is damn near a masterpiece, but it is VERY flawed. That’s not necessarily unique when it comes to movies that people absolutely adore which tend to be flawed due to the sheer force of vision from the film makers that made it so memorable in some ways but poorly done in others. Hell, you don’t have to look much further than F Gary Gray’s own Friday which gets a cute reference in this to see an example of a movie everyone loves but is far from perfect in any respect. Before we get to what’s wrong with this movie, what is it that makes it so great? It’d be easy to simply list off how fantastic the acting is, how wonderfully realized the mean streets of Compton are, and how strong the writing in each scene is, but what I think sets this movie apart is how much depth they bring out of this material. I know absolutely nothing about NWA until I saw this movie. I knew Ice Cube was in it and he’s now making family movies, I had no idea Dr. Dre was a member, and I didn’t know who the hell Eazy-E was. I’m aware there are two other members, but let’s save that for later. This movie not only taught me all about these three people, but made their story compelling and their impact immediately apparent. Unfortunately, because I know nothing about the real life story, I can’t tell you if there are any inaccuracy’s or even if what I got out of the film in any way reflects what actually happened. Still, F Gary Gray did an amazing job in here just giving life to everything on screen and showing you who these people are, where they come from, and why they were so damn important. The first act is all about showing us why these people were motivated in the first place to become musicians. Watching them on screen as they observe the landscape where so many people are forced to live and die and then channeling those feelings into their passion is incredibly compelling and just washes away any bullshit notions you may have about the music they wrote.
They were talented individuals who took an experience that’s a reality for so many people (yet never got serious representation in art) and created an entire cultural zeitgeist out of it. You can’t deny the impact their music had and passion these guys had for what they were doing which is one of the main reasons you get so invested in these characters. Now these guys are no saints. The movie does take time (though from what I hear, not NEARLY enough time) to point out when they let their egos and rage drive them to make stupid decisions. Hell, Dr. Dre’s defining characteristic outside of his musical talent is that he’s a deadbeat dad who makes empty promises yet never follows through on them when it comes to his daughter. This is the kind of stuff that you have to make choices on when creating a biopic and my lack of knowledge on any of their darker moments means I am not qualified to say whether or not the omissions were grievous enough to hurt this movie. All I can say is that the characters they’ve chose to put on screen are very compelling and likeable even when they’re being less than decent human beings. Now a lot of that is in the first act of the movie. Once they DO get to the big leagues in the second act, that’s when we start to see the impact and the tragic similarities between what we’re dealing with now (Ferguson, Baltimore, Hands up don’t shoot, etc) and the hysteria surrounding the group while they were on tour. The cops are pitch perfect in this movie too because they’re appearances in this are always immediate and devastating. Every time a cop car shows up in this movie, it’s a harsh gear shift from whatever the scene was beforehand (friendly collaboration, tough guy bravado, emotional deterioration, etc) into a straight up horror flick. I’m guessing this was accurate for the late eighties and early nineties (as well as today in some areas), but whether or not the cops were (are) this brutal and terrifying in these areas, it still makes for compelling scenes in the movie where things can turn very ugly very quickly.
As I said, there are strong performances from the entire cast and F Gary Gray still knows how to shoot these kinds of locations in a way very few directors can. As a biopic, it does its job by getting you invested in who these people are, why they’re important, and why their story should have been told on the big screen. I can’t tell you if any inaccuracies in this hurts the film, but as someone who’s coming in fresh, I felt like I learned a lot about that time and the importance that this group had to defining a generation of music. However, I did say earlier that this was NEARLY a masterpiece. While the actors are all fantastic, the cinematography is spot on, and the thematic elements all resonate (if a touch heavy handed), what ultimately hurts this movie more than anything else is the structure of the story. The movie covers nine years of these characters lives, but only half of it is actually about NWA. The second half of this movie feels very jumbled and inconsequential compared with the much stronger first half of the movie which was so much more focused and coherent. Once the band breaks up, we end up following three separate story lines as Eazy-E manage without his former bandmates, Dr. Dre has to deal with the insanity at Death Row Records, and Ice Cube… just kinda has a really great career. Because we have to follow each of these characters, we can only get small moments from what’s going on in their lives after the band breaks up and it feels like a REALLY rough edit was done to this half film. To give you an example, there’s a part in the movie where Dr. Dre gets arrested after storming out of the Death Row Records office, yet it’s never brought up again and has no bearing on what happens in the rest of this film. The thing is, there’s a scene in the trailer where Dr. Dre is in jail and promises to do better, but this is not in the movie! It’s stuff like this that happens throughout this portion of the film that ends up making it feel like the movie’s peak was halfway through and we’re just on a slow slide downward until they decide to end the movie.
With any biopic, you end up running into issues on how to tell a story in the traditional three act structure because people’s lives rarely go in that direction. It was clear that there was a VERY obvious point in which they had to end the movie (the death of Eazy-E in 1995), which meant that they then had to try backfill the remaining movie with pertinent moments so that we can come to that conclusion. It’s a tough position to be in considering that the movie is about NWA, yet has to keep going until 1995 which is four years after the band broke up (and five years after Ice Cube left). While I understand the strain they must have been under trying to make this a strong narrative, I don’t think they succeeded entirely. It’s an admirable effort and all the events that they DO end up filming are done with an insane level of skill and artistry, but the film still ends up suffering due to the sheer breadth of material it needs to cover. Along the scenes that don’t contribute to the overarching story, we also get characters that come in and out with no fanfare and it’s very jarring at points, especially when all of a sudden our characters are married. Hell, there’s a scene where Ice Cube is trying to get some money owed to him by Priority Records and his wife (who we’re seeing for the first time) mentions that she’s pregnant. You know the next time we hear about the kid? We don’t! The closest we get is a quick pan where Ice Cube has two toddlers in the back room. Wait, they had TWO kids!? When the hell did that happen!? Was that not important enough to put in the film? Should we not care about the kids or the wives of these guys? Speaking of characters with no reason to be there, the movie focuses EXCLUSIVELY on those three members of NWA. I never found out who the other two members of the group were (DJ Yella and Arabian Prince), and I didn’t even notice when one of them was supposed to be replaced (MC Ren came in after Arabian Prince left in 1988). While throwing even more characters into the movie might have just made things even harder for them to edit this film together, it’s disappointing that we don’t really get to know these people who had to have had SOMETHING to contribute to this movie!
Despite it kind of falling apart in the back half, it manages to stay afloat because of how well done everything is even when it’s edited together so poorly. I imagine there has to be a director’s cut coming out at some point which might fix some of the issues, but I doubt that they shot that much material for this movie and what we’re seeing is more or less the story as they had to tell it. It’s still a fantastic biopic that gets you to truly understand the strength of street knowledge (Waka! Waka!) if you didn’t already. Even with its flaws, I can’t recommend it more highly for you all to go out and see if you haven’t already. Just be aware that things start to derail a bit in the second half, but even that can’t take much away from a story this important. It’s easily one of the best films I’ve seen this year and I hope the box office success of this will lead to some serious change in the kind of movies we see being made. Like NWA in the nineties, this movie can hopefully make a real difference by being audacious, smart, and a little rough around the edges, at a time where people are looking for something meaningful to shake up the status quo. That or they’ll just be happy to see something better than Fantastic Four this August.
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