“Straight Outta Compton” tells the story of N.W.A., a rap group whose initials stand for something unprintable, and whose biggest hit had an unprintable title. The story follows the lives of Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr. – Cube’s real-life son) from their beginnings in the mid-80’s funding their careers with drug money to their rise through the L.A. rap scene to their national fame and notoriety to their falling out and solo careers to their planning of a reunion that was sadly never to be.
The film depicts many highlights of the group’s career, including their first recording of “Boys N the Hood” (I always thought Eazy-E sounded like a complete amateur on this track and this movie shows I wasn’t wrong), their police-infuriating performance in Detroit (though I’m sure any performance of theirs in the wake of their biggest hit was police-infuriating), the wild parties and vices that artists always seem to fall prey to in these types of movies, and the steamroller stunt where protestors smashed hundreds of copies of the group’s album “Straight Outta Compton” (I always suspected that the group saw a certain upside to this stunt, and once again the movie confirms my suspicions).
What the film does best is, in a word, tension. The film takes place in a world where guns are common, and they are constantly wielded with varying degrees of seriousness (though even wielding a gun non-seriously makes for a scary situation). There are also violent moments involving beatings, smashings, and even threats of dog attacks. Most of these moments come from infamous music executive Suge Knight (R. Marcus Taylor), who’s been an intimidating figure his entire career. But perhaps the most tense and upsetting scenes are confrontations between the group’s members and the police. Much of the movie takes place in Rodney King-era Southern California, where the police had a reputation for being racist, violent sociopaths and the film depicts them as such. And yes, many people still assign this image to the police, especially in the last few years. In too many cases this image is deserved, in many more cases it is not
Unfortunately, some painful clichés of the music biopic genre do rear their ugly head and they detract from the overall product. There’s the minor character who you can tell is going to die because of the way he makes plans for the future. There’s the major character who you can tell is going to die from the fact that he merely coughs. There’s the predictably unscrupulous behavior by the group’s manager (Paul Giamatti, whose sleaziness is even more predictable if you saw him play a similar character in “Rock of Ages”). There are unnecessary “cameos” from depictions of rappers like Snoop Dogg and Tupac that aren’t important to the story and exist just so the movie can brag about them in advertising.
It’s hard to ignore the times when “Straight Outta Compton” plays like a thousand other music biopics that have come before it. It’s also hard to ignore the times when the actors overstate their “street” dialogue and it sounds unnatural (an early scene in a drug den is especially guilty of this). But then again, it’s impossible to ignore the excitement the movie generates, from the passionate recreations of the performances to the intense armed confrontations (the drug den scene redeems itself by turning into a surprisingly intricate action sequence). This movie is of course worth seeing if you like N.W.A., and even if you don’t, there’s still a good chance you’ll find something of value.
“Straight Outta Compton” is rated R for language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence, and drug use. Its running time is 147 minutes. Bob Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. He has been a published movie reviewer since 2006.